“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good people to do nothing.”
- Edmund Burke (paraphrase)
The relationship of art and politics has been a source of angst in my artmaking practice for over 45 years. The first twenty I spent in a state of denial. I ping ponged back and forth between a total raging cynicism towards a system driven society devoid of either justice or compassion and the polar opposite of an escape to an idealized world where truth and beauty prevails and I was contributing to the elevation of that society through my cultural practice. Unfortunately, the manufacture of trinkets for rich peoples’ walls was never enough of an impetus and I spent more time not making art than making art. My outlook changed when I came to the realization that art is visual language.
Art is language and we acquire language to facilitate communication. Language gives us voice. All ideas flow through language and all power flows out of ideas. In many pre-contact North American cultures leadership and influence was achieved and maintained through power of oration. If you couldn’t convince people to follow you they didn’t. Fini. Now, bureaucracies and ideology, guns and money buy power where their ideas fail to convince. Next to money, voice is the only power we have. That is why THEY always take away the writers and artists first. Many artists just shut up. Or choose to sell their voice to the highest bidder. Consider advertising: artists and psychologists paid to persuade us to place our hands in the shackles, to love our chains, the metal bite smoothed and softened by the velvety rewards. Fine dining, good wine or awesome weed, trip to Cabo or London or Goa and maybe someday the Lexus or even a Beamer. Step right up and get you own little check mark of approval. Branded at birth (but not a real brand, you change whenever you want); a little check mark of acceptance on your forehead or your chest, or maybe you can be on Tommy’s team. Besides, its unpatriotic not to consume and the two sided coin of Democracy/Capitalism depends on you, to keep it rolling and growing. No matter that it is destroying the planet. You could be the King of the world.
Throughout history Art has been used to enhance power. From the shaman, to the church, to the state, to the corporation, those in power have realized the potential of art (or if you will, cultural products) to influence belief systems, shape ideologies and instill confidence in whichever power structure (religious, state or economic system) happens to wield this tool.
Even with the impulse to make art driven by the modernist muse of perfect spiritual altruism, history shows, that the artist is in constant danger of being co-opted by the forces of the dominant ideology. Art by an elite for an elite in the service of the glory of, in this case, Capitalism. Jeff Koons, in an interview in the late eighties, called for a new Bourgeoisie and a new Avant Garde, attached with a new golden umbilical cord I suppose. This coincided, funnily enough, with the rise of the Neo-Liberal/Conservative economic agenda in America: a return to unfettered Capitalism, deregulation and a market driven economy providing more wealth for all. The so called trickle-down theory: trickle down of wealth and trickle down of culture. All boats rising on the tide. Either most peoples’ boats have holes in them or else the theory is wrong because the opposite has happened. We now have the “sucking up” effect. The REALITY is that the new wealth that is being created (at the expense of the environment) filters to the top of the Power food chain. The gap between the rich and poor widens every day.
Perhaps what is needed instead of a new Avant Garde is a new Bohemia. Artists at large. Artist as outsider. Artists that refuse to capitulate. Or to sell out Artist as cultural guerrilla warrior. Artist as subversive, making art that subverts. The Beats knew it. Adopting the position of the contrarian is not enough. Escaping into aestheticism, making beauty in the midst of ugliness, peace in the midst of conflict or even anti-art in the face of art does not ensure the avoidance of complicity.
The only position of defense against the co-optive power of the dominant ideology is one of subversion. It is the strategy of the Trojan Horse. It is one of the only things that counters the cynicism, that gives me hope that my voice matters: a voice that speaks of things that are impossible to articulate in any other way and a voice that has spoken for me in places I have never been.
There is no shortage of voices incanting facile rationalizations such as “what’s the point”, “there will always be this or that”, “if I don’t someone else will, so go for it”, “not now”, “maybe later like when I’m sixty-four”, which in a way forces me into this position, reinforcing my resolve. Because as we sit here and talk and talk and talk, imagining everything is all right, we’re comfortable, we watch a world where in REALITY fifty-nine percent of the wealth of the world is in the possession of six percent of the population who are all from the United States of America. In REALITY seventy percent of the world population is illiterate. In REALITY fifty percent of the world population suffers from malnutrition. In REALITY we are destroying the ecosystem of the planet at an unprecedented rate. In REALITY gay men are routinely beaten to death for no other reason than for being. In REALITY people of colour are routinely beaten, killed and incarcerated because of their skin. In REALITY fourteen-year-old girls sell their bodies on the streets of supernatural B.C.
And someone whispers “do you really think we should say something?”
And I can’t help thinking silence is consent.