Politics and Art

The Sunday after the US election, I got a text asking whether Unnatural Light would be commenting on the election. I replied, “No, at least not this week.” I had thought to wait until the election was really over (when the Electoral College votes on December 19 or the counting the electoral votes on January 6). But as the days passed and more and more things happened, the more I felt compelled to at least say something about my thoughts and feelings.

The arts community seems to be primarily liberal, or “progressive” if you prefer. I am no different. The election and its immediate aftermath are, in my opinion, horrific. As Austin Kleon put it, “It’s been a rotten week.” This is not because the “other side” won. I have lived through many non-progressive administrations. What has been most disturbing about this election has been the potential regression and repression. There seems to be unceasing talk of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, as well as suppression of criticism. Equally disturbing are the members of a variety of minorities who have, in the last week, talked to me about acquiring defensive weapons because suddenly they no longer feel safe in the America-we-are-becoming.

That said, there are those in the arts community who are political conservatives. Indeed, there are some who are supporters of the President-elect. I have no real explanation for this other than that art and politics are not necessarily aligned.

Most artists have some opinion of what art is and how it should respond to the politics and culture of the time. The President-elect feels that a plea from the Broadway stage for inclusion is harassment and requires an apology, that the theatre should be “a safe and special place“. Others feel that Edward Albee’s assessment of theatre is the correct one: “Well, I think if you don’t offend some people, you’re probably failing in some way.” “A playwright has a responsibility in his society not to aid it, or comfort it, but to comment and criticize it.” “All plays, if they’re any good, are constructed as correctives. That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. We’re not merely decorative, pleasant and safe.Patsy Rodenburg thinks that the power of theatre in general and actors specifically lies in the ability to tell the truth to people who may not want to hear it. She explains in a must-see TED Talk video.

There have been several posts on the internet purporting to advise artists on the appropriate response to the newly-elected administration. There have been calls to give the incoming administration a chance, to work with the incoming administration, to oppose the incoming administration at all opportunities. And, of course, there have been innumerable articles on how artists are responding (here and here, for example).

Personally, I am not convinced that there is a “correct” response for artists. In a 2011 post, I defended artists who chose not to create political art. This is because, at the bottom of it, I believe that art is individual and that each artist speaks with his/her own voice and concerns him/herself with those subjects that are important to him/her. From time to time, I have made political art, but it does not make up the bulk of my body of work by any means; I only do such work when I feel very strongly about a political topic and when making that art coincides with my current artistic interests and goals.

So, no, I do not think that proper artistic response to the recent election is that artist make anti-administration art. What I do think is that each artist should follow his/her artistic instincts. Each artist should speak to his/her audience in whatever way is appropriate to that particular person. I agree with Rodenburg; art is powerful. So my wish is that each artist use that power and present the truth as he/she sees it. My belief is that that is one of the only requisites in art: whatever our topics, no matter who it offends, we must present truth to our audiences.

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Date: Sunday, 27. November 2016 23:49
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Communication, Creativity

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