To dictate at any moment in time what an artist should and should not do is dangerous business, and in a post-modern America to do so is effectively to end one’s career as a writer and thinker and to embark upon the realm of partisan polemics. It is not a happy thing to be told what to do and it is still less happy to be the dictator of such counsel, and yet I find myself doing just this: That artists living and working in America today are not producing art with a political focus and intent is regrettable at best and irresponsible at worst. Every artist in America should be aware and concerned for the political conduct of the United States, and its effects on the world, and this concern must necessarily be represented either explicitly or implicitly in the work they produce. As Lincoln reminds us, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” And so we must speak. We must speak because our silence is complicity in a system demanding nothing less from us, and expecting nothing more.
Hopefully these first lines catch attention because the truth is the majority of artists living and working in America today are producing political work, and this is very much to the point. Why today is it necessary, not even pertinent or advisable, but crucial, that artists produce work that is concerned with our current political state in the world? Why is an artist more often concerned today with the political effect a piece will have, than with the achievement and meditation of that piece on beauty?
To understand this question we must first take seriously the place that Beauty, in all of its Platonic supremacy, previously held in the art world. We must understand that art has long spurned any connection with the contemporary political arena, and traditionally academia and art criticism has upheld this view.
Please understand, this is not to say that today art devoid of politics does not get made, and that art that still abjures the bloodied political stain of partisanship and debate is not also necessary and relevant to the world, rather, I mean to say that contemporary American art must, for the time being, acknowledge either its defiance of a system of reckless production, consumption and oppression or its tacit acceptance and participation within that system. American artists can no longer ignore the stamp of empire, not only in the Capitalist system, of which the art world is a part, however minimal, but also in the realm of the aesthete, a realm long dominated and distinguished by the political agendas of those in power: wealthy patrons whose money not only affords them flattering art, but secures and maintains its production.
Before artists sit too firmly in the censorious position of the elite under attack they must first acknowledge the long presence and tradition of the Academy in the Western art world, an academy, which continues to dictate taste and prominence through its system of trade value.
Of this dilemma in particular, the patronage and commendation of sycophant art, many of the twentieth and twenty-first century’s most important thinkers write extensively. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, for instance, finds the source of culture, taste, wealth, opinion, and even Truth, (the word is used advisedly,) to be intimately connected with power. One cannot view the prevailing landscape of apathy and ignorance without knowing that this dispassion serves a purpose, and that the purpose supports a centralized faction of wealthy producers. Therefore, it is particularly important that those intellectuals among us, aware of the structure of oppression, find traction in the contemporary political climate and begin speaking with the awareness that education has afforded them. This point is additionally informed by the function that art and its contemplation serve as a social corrective: describing the empathic relationship of the audience towards artwork, and promoting, by example, this very important act of empathy in society. For if the form of the craft embodies what is absent in the substance we can only find the art solipsistic and indulgent, the product of juvenilia: unaware of and unconcerned for the responsibility that speech has in the world. And what a responsibility it has! The responsibility of the artist to inform and inspire the public towards a realm of higher thought: the realm of our infinite and graceful potential.
The resignation of the artist from his/her role as cultural observer/participant/commentator and sometimes critic to one of privileged innocent, indulging in the refuge of the quaintly benighted and apolitical is simply irresponsible, something akin to witnessing a crime, knowing the perpetrator and claiming impunity on account of the action being committed by another: responsibility is still held, if only to the situation, regardless of one’s position as voyeur. And, indeed, in this war everyone’s hands are bloody, even those who choose to speak. It is not innocence that the protestor claims, but guilt: a conscious peccability that speaks so that it might identify its own origin and repent.
In truth most every conceivable production of art, be it landscape or prosed protest, is political on account of its production in time. The necessary birthing that all artwork must undergo means very specifically that each piece is ‘of the polis’: political by nature of its placement in time and by the artist’s de facto political participation as a member of the polis, working in a craft laden with its own social history and construct.
Regardless of the conscious composition of the artist, involving or not involving politics, the very letters, words, colors, objects, movements or musical notes used are themselves products of a specific society at a specific time and in a particular location of the world. Additionally, the way these tools are used, the influence of the world on both the artist and the art produced, affects enormously both the meaning and the context in which the work is received and appraised. The onus, therefore, is not for the artist to be political—which he/she is regardless of intent, desire or need—but for the artist to be aware of his/her own political context, and savvy enough to affect the politics of his/her environment with the maturity and skill that the production of True Beauty demands. That an artist must produce work that both focuses on True and complicated Beauty, while promoting its continued existence and reverence in the world, is what is being called for.
If this is the artist’s goal than the work must necessarily take on the immediacy and presence of greatness, as the tension between meaningful and responsible artwork and the world distinguishes the simple goodness of Truth, like the perception of light upon leaving a cave: bright, urgent and without doubt. And so art must be in these times of dark puppetry: aware and responsible for itself in the world, seeking only to inspire benevolence, enriching our understanding and appreciation of others while defying the degradation so much of this world seeks for ourselves.
But how to do this? How must art resist a world whose ability to consume and pervert the best of intentions into one more saleable product maintain its integrity and inspire radical and revolutionary action? I believe this is done only through art’s disavowal of cheap political pablum, from either side, and its embrace and depiction of that majestic human greatness every individual embodies on account of his/her miraculous human nature. It is important primarily to know that Good and Evil are not human qualities, rather the human being is neither Good or Bad, Right or wrong, but simply human, and in this there is a devastating majesty of which, should art choose this as its subject, will resonate and inspire all “the better angels of our nature” drawing the politic out of the cave and towards the vibrancy of their own light projected in the sky.
It is not for artists to confuse their craft with reportage, rather it is for them we reserve something all the more graceful, it is from them we desire to see our souls: the illumination and depiction of possibility rather than the corrupt confusion of chance greed, of which there is all too much evidence in the world. And so it is understood that what is of primary concern is the method of protest that artists are currently engaging in.
Much of the art being made, however political, is indulgent in the depravity it represents. Artists working with numbers and figures confront their audience in an attack, distinctly lacking the empathy and emotional concern that they would then demand of their audience.
However true the statistics of poverty, suffering and starvation might be they remain stolidly cold in their appeal, provoking their audience into a position of defense or disinterest rather than galvanizing any contribution towards real and effective change. Most conspicuously, statistics lack the emotional quality of temporality. In their stern and solidly numeric appearance they resist doubt and interpretation by appealing to the language of fact, namely a language that resists the dynamic collaboration of change and interaction. Today’s political artwork is in need of affect the individual into action: this being done not through the aid of crippling statistical figures, but through the appeal of the artist to that most generous and willing capacity in the human being, empathy.
What is powerful and inspirational in art is absent in numbers, namely the human element. There is nothing in the quotation of statistics that would allow empathy or the understanding of an audience for the very real and human problem those numbers represent; and this problem is most clearly identified in the apathetic response that most news stories receive from their viewers. The news is watched during dinnertime, and regardless of the hour’s content the meal is finished, the viewers retire to bed and the whole process is repeated the following evening with little or no change and most certainly very little if any galvanization of response.