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Politics and the Artist

Sunday, 12. September 2021 21:11

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes,” according to celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. If this is the case, how are artists to respond to the politics of suppression and public health recklessness practiced by the legislature and executive leadership of the State of Texas and some other states as well?

Should artists bend their style and practice to respond to such or should they stay their artistic course and protest some other way? Probably it depends on the artists and their art. For example, a painters of floral still lifes would be hard put to modify their art to incorporate a political statement, while news or editorial photographers would not. The inclination of the artist is also a factor. Some are so concerned about their style or brand that they do not wish modify what they are doing, regardless of their feelings about current politics.

Historically, some artists, particularly playwrights and filmmakers have responded by creating work that indirectly commented on the problem; Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are excellent examples of this kind of work, as well as the number of subversive films made in reaction to  HUAC activities in the 1950s. Interestingly, this type of work was well-received, although it unclear whether audience members fully understood the connection between the work and the political situation.

Other work that is well received is by artists who respond to current events and find themselves becoming known for political commentary. Instead of shying away from the label, they embrace it. Both Shepard Fairey and Banksey come to mind.

Other artists may maintain their standard brand, but initiate a side-brand, perhaps of T-shirts or coffee mugs that are political in nature; sometimes these artists will even produce the political work under a different name in order to keep their primary brand “pure.” They might also use a storefront name on one of numerous online marketplace sites.

If the artists do not want to change their styles or subject matter, how might they respond to current situation? At least six creative people I know think that the problems are not just state, but national and are actively researching leaving the country; they plan to practice their arts either in a different location or via international media. Certainly that is a valid choice, even though some may consider it a bit drastic. Others are politically active in avenues outside their art: Several, including writers, directors, actors, and some photographers maintain an active political life on social media, commenting on the current situation and encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. One photographer/blogger I know produces a semi-weekly newsletter highlighting current events and decisions for his readership.

Some choose to ignore politics completely, but I am finding that these individuals are becoming rarer and rarer as US politics and pandemic reach out to touch nearly everyone. Paying no attention to these issues can be attractive and comfortable, so long as one doesn’t mind living with their head in the sand and with the understanding that the issues won’t disappear.

How any particular artist responds to political and national health issues is certainly an individual decision.  Artists need to decide whether to deal with the problems head-on or in a more private way. The one choice we as artists don’t have, at least according to Kurosawa, is to look away.

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Comfortably Numb

Sunday, 19. July 2020 23:34

It’s almost too much. We in the US are dealing with far too many negatives in our lives at the moment to fully concentrate on creating. First we are trying to stay healthy and safe, which is easier for some than for others. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work at our day jobs from home, the risk is somewhat diminished; however, that sheltering in place keeps us isolated. And that isolation can be detrimental to our mental health unless we are prepared to deal with it. Working from home presents its own set of challenges even after this length of time. We don’t quite ever have the tools we used to have, so every day is a learning experience as we discover new means and methods to accomplish our tasks.

Added to that, we hear news every day that more and more cases of COVID-19 are occurring and that the death toll continues to rise. Things are not getting better. And that weighs on us because it means that we must look at more weeks and months of isolation—if we are to stay safe and healthy. In addition to that, we also hear every day about police violence and brutality, about systemic racism and its impact on people’s lives, about political campaigns built on fear and lies.

And so we fret and worry and try with everything in us to make some kind of sense out of it all, to come to terms with our own situation and the state of the country. And it’s almost too much.

And then, the one-too-many headline comes and we don’t even bother to read the attendant article. The line has been crossed; it’s finally too much. Tears are not a choice; we are already dry and have been for months. The other choice is to close down, to go numb. Numb is when nothing gets to us; nothing touches us; nothing matters; the world moves on without us, because we are in an unfeeling existence.

Make no mistake, numbness is comfortable. We don’t hurt anymore; we don’t worry anymore; we’re not concerned any more. And it’s easy because we are used to hunkering down alone. There is, however, a down side: since we no longer feel, we don’t create; we don’t produce. We spend our time scrolling through Twitter or Instagram or YouTube or staring off into space and doing mostly nothing. But it’s okay because it doesn’t hurt any more. It can last for days or weeks or months or forever. We are comfortably numb.

The problem is that all the things we were concerned about before are still there, and, if we are to be honest, still need our attention. Even in our isolation there are things we can do. There are posts we can write. There are comments we can make. There are people that we can influence. There is creative work we can do. There are ideas and artifacts we can produce.

So when that one-too-many headline hits, instead of closing down, we might instead take a day off. Turn off The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Twitter and Instagram feeds. Rest. Breathe. Gather ourselves. Remember who we are and what we’re about. Then—do something creative. Perhaps even produce some art. The world will roll on and we can rejoin it when we are able, but in the meantime we must not allow ourselves to become comfortably numb.

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Stop Focusing on the Future

Sunday, 5. July 2020 23:28

Lately there is a lot of concern about the future; just plug “future of” into Google and look at the drop-down. We are concerned about the future of live theatre, live music, learning, visual arts, libraries, plastic arts, restaurants, bars, art galleries, movies, story-telling in general, and on and on. Not only are we worried about whether all of those activities and institutions will survive COVID-19, but what they will look like when and if they do.

And there’s the problem of dealing with the virus itself, of trying to stay healthy and safe and at the same time continuing to live when the means of making a living have for many simply ceased to be. Many in the service sector have seen their businesses closed because of coronavirus lockdowns. Artists are without venues or patrons or customers. All are wondering when things are going to get better.

Then there’s the political situation: wondering what the country will look like after November. Will the current administration stay in power, and if so, what will that look like? If the current administration is removed from office, will it follow tradition and pass power peacefully to the winning party or will the transition be difficult and strife-torn? And what changes will that winning party bring?

And that’s not the only political issue on people’s minds. There is the push for finally achieving racial equality as well as reducing police violence and abuse. These movements are intertwined and connected to the overall political questions, but they are separate issues that occupy the thoughts of many. And while small steps are being made, most people see these as future goals.

One thing that all of these concerns have in common is that they fill us with confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, stress, and for some, depression. That we are trying to deal with them all at once only adds to those feelings. Another thing that they all have in common is that they are focused on the future, so they take our minds to a place that is even more uncertain than our present. We humans are a very adaptable species, but we really need to know what we are adapting to, and the ambiguity of the future leaves us at a loss that only adds to our anxiety.

One solution is to stop focusing on that undefined future and focus on the present. But our focus needs to be even further refined. Some who look to the present give their attention to what they can’t do. In communicating recently with actors, musicians, directors, designers, I have heard over and over again what they couldn’t do. In some cases these complaints were serious in that they restrained income; in other cases, it seemed to amount to whining. In any case, concentrating on what can’t be done is not useful.

What is useful is letting go of not only the future, but of what can’t be accomplished. What we need to do is concentrate on the present—on what we can do. For example, I know of an actor who is writing poetry, another who is writing a play, a photographer who is making Christmas cards, a writer who is tending a garden. In none of these cases are the artists doing what they would like to be doing, but they are doing something positive, and it provides much needed work for their hands and for their heads.

And like them, we may choose to focus on a project that may not be what we want to do; it may not be what will increase our income, but it will give us a better state of mind. It will allow us to engage our creativity. It will reduce our feeling of helplessness. It will allow us to make it through another day. It might provide us a moment of accomplishment. It might engender our next big project. Whatever it does, it will allow us to make art—even in the middle of all this.

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And the Winner Is…

Monday, 17. February 2020 0:56

The Academy Awards marked the end of the awards season for films, but not the end of the discussion and controversy surrounding the awards and the films, actors, and directors who did and did not get nominated or who did and did not win this or that award. Coupled with that are the discussions of who or what film should have won this or that award, and there is discussion of the snubs and the possible reasons for them.

There were two lessons to be taken from this year’s award season. The first is that nominations, wins, and snubs are political as well as aesthetic.

Artists who do not work in film understand that the various awards shows are simply spectacles attached to juried film contests. Unlike standard juried art shows, however, film awards programs are fostered by a series of advertisements not unlike electioneering. The reason is, of course, the potential income that winning such awards can bring. Still, at the bottom, the awards are nothing but grandly publicized juried contests with a great number of jurors.

As such, they are subject to all the vagaries of any juried show. Each juror has not only a personal aesthetic which informs his/her judgement, i.e. what is artistically worthy of an award, but a personal political view as well. That political view may include any number of considerations of what is politically appropriate at the moment with respect to the contestants and the milieu in which they work. Of course some of these considerations will overlap juror-to-juror; some will not. Multiply these concerns by the number of jurors and it is easy to see why some films rise to the top and some do not in any particular year.

Awards are voted and announced and then there is great indignation that someone’s choice did not win. However, if pressed, that person cannot tell you why this film should have won over the one that was chosen. The second lesson to be learned is that many film enthusiasts cannot articulate why they think one film is better than another one; they just think it is.

Perhaps the first problem to acknowledge is that comparing films is like comparing apples and roses and tricycles. Films are one-off creations, much like any handcrafted artifact. Yes, there are series and franchises, but each film is expected to stand on its own just like each painting or sculpture or photograph is expected to stand on its own.

If we are to compare a film about a “members of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family” and a film about “a stand-up comedian…whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal” and a film about “two young British soldiers during the First World war who are ordered to deliver a message” we must have some sort of set of standards as to what makes a film good. Most people seem to have that, but are unable to articulate it. When questioned, they simply say, “It was just better.”

So my two take-aways from this year’s film awards seasons are: (1) these awards shows are simply hoopla associated with juried contests for films. There are hundreds of jurors, and they all come with their own aesthetics and political positions which influence their votes. (2) Non-jurors (and perhaps jurors as well) also have their own aesthetics and political positions with regards to the evaluation of film, but they cannot articulate their standards.

We should take these two considerations into account the next time we submit pieces to juried shows; it is likely that responses to our work will incorporate them.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience | Comment (0) | Autor: