Thursday, February 09, 2017

over at the Washington Post Tom Rachman says that contemporary art world is not up to the challenge of resisting Trump (which should surprise nobody)

The article photo with the Jeff Koons culture is practically a self-implicating statement all on its own but ... an author asks the question of how the art world (presumably defined in the most vastly inclusive sense possible) can ...


Those in the American arts are in a difficult position at the dawn of Trump time: damned if they damn him, damned if they don’t. Lamenting the president in public, they face eye-rolling and charges of self-importance; avoid taking a stand, and they risk vitriol, too. But are artists even capable of political influence nowadays?

Right-wing commentators have spent years sniping at liberals in the arts, with notable success. A generation ago, “politicized artist” might have conjured, say, the Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Today, “politicized artist” is as likely to evoke a whiny, entitled, bobble-headed creative.

The irrelevance of art owes partly to the ascendant populist mood, and partly to protest art being so reliably liberal, so soothingly safe. Artists may claim they’re nailing “redneck racists,” but how many of those attended the gallery opening? Politics in the arts often looks more like group bonding than anything that might effect change.

Not that artists aren’t trying. Efforts to avoid a Trump presidency ranged from slapping down cash to sketching in bodily fluid. Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, Ed Ruscha and Chuck Close are among those who made contributions to try to help elect Hillary Clinton. One young artist drew an imagined nude of Trump with a notably small penis; another portrayed Trump in the medium of her own menstrual blood.

Somehow, none of this — no degree of scorn, no foe — could stop The Donald.

How would any of that have stopped Trump from being elected by the Electoral College?  Contributing to a political cause, sure, and voting, but the thing about districting seems to have made it clear that as the red and blue districts sorted into what they were and districting happened that, as some liberal/left folks have been lamenting for months now, a bunch of rural red districts ensured Trump won the Electoral College.  The "Hamilton" moment for the electoral vote had Clinton losing pledged votes.  And amidst all that what do artists think they can do?

Something like not doing something like this?  It may be a strange testament to the irrelevance of some types of modern art that I'd never before heard of this person until this year. 

Rachman name-dropped Solzhenitsyn as the point of contrast between an artist or author as dissident and what we have today.  Sure, but Shostakovich's status as a dissident is, to put it politely, hotly contested and yet the music he wrote is still pretty popular.  Perhaps too few artists and writers in the West are capable of grasping that artists and writers who live in totalitarian regimes have to live with the impossibility of some kinds of freedoms.

But at another level, if the National Endowment for the Arts actually gets gutted the art world will get a chance to find out how it gets by in the age of Trump.

But if the art world consists of people like Jeff Koons who says it needs to survive?  Wouldn't this be the perfect moment for people to make art for the sake of art and make it at a constant monetary loss as an offering made to the beautiful?  Or is that too ... religious a motivation for making art?  Kind of back to Solzhenitsyn a bit there, whose Russian Orthodoxy has had its detractors but even a new atheist like Christopher Hitchens could appreciate that if that gave Solzhenitsyn the courage to dissent when and how he did we should be grateful for that.

This WaPo piece is a reminder that when the old left and old right complain about the self-congratulatory vices of social justice warriors or academics or entertainers that, well, it's not really funny because it's like shooting fish in a barrel.  The writers and artists seem eager to volunteer for the public record that their entertaining the mere possibility that art could somehow defy a regime is the same as having an alternative. 

I admit I've tended to be moderately conservative on both religion and politics my whole life and I figured the DNC had ensured Clinton would get the nom so there was no point in either voting against Clinton in a blue state on the one hand by voting for a conservative candidate or for voting for any Democratic contender that wasn't Clinton (i.e. Sanders).  Sanders fans seemed to be angry radicals not entirely unlike the angry reactionaries who seemed to be drawn to Trump, though perhaps it'd be good to say it's not necessarily Sanders' fault.  Still, Sanders' approach seemed to fit broadly into a social democrat/New Deal reborn view.  We did that in the 1930s and if you're going to run blue you might as well go for it.  Clinton's compromises were more numerous and serious than her fan base has wanted to concede and if it came down to who was more willing to vote for X just to spite Y, well, we saw how that played out.  In a way both candidates were running campaigns of self-congratulatory entitlement but one of them managed, in the eyes and ears of the press, to seem dignified about it.  Unfortunately dignity can be appearance.  It was hard to shake the impression that if these two candidates were what the two party system was going to give us we're screwed. Maybe we should be. 

The entertainment and arts scene has become a kind of default priesthood in Western cultures.  It's been a long time taking shape and the failure of the arts to reconstitute themselves as a kind of post-Christian civic religion in the West has inspired legions of books spanning the spectrum left and right, religious and irreligious.  For any artist to ask what artists can do in the age of Trump besides voting for causes you believe in and seeking to inform the public is lunacy.  You either have to admit your art has to serve the purpose of propaganda (because its' not just propaganda only when someone else makes art for a team you dislike). or you have to settle for the possibility that your art won't matter as political speech.  So per the WaPo article and picture ... if Jeff Koons can't identify his whole career and work as part of the problem he's not going to be part of a solution.  What may be most galling for the arts/entertainment world in the election of Trump is that, reality TV star though he's been, he's still very much one of them, just not the highbrow respectable sort. 

It might almost go without saying that if an artist is making stuff that gets coverage from WaPo or The New Yorker it's probably not having an impact.  I know it seems a little too jaded but there's a point at which you have to concede that maybe arts coverage is still advertising by another name.  Certainly marketing types get this, and even performers and writers can grasp that the business is business.  That being the case, how far can you go in repudiating someone you believe is in it for their own advantage and renown if you are trying to do the same? 

Now I can certainly say that writing the truth as best you can document can and does change things but not overnight, not in any usually observable ways, and only when literally thousands of people take what is reported and make decisions that can't be controlled for.  In no ay did this blog "take out" Mars Hill, and that wasn't even the goal.  There wasn't even a goal, beyond documenting things so they could be considered for public record.  Properly understanding the power of artistic communication can depend on understanding just how profound its limitations are. It also helps if you understand that even the most solitary act of artistic creation is simultaneously a social act. 

But then I recall reading an interview with Denzel Washington about his early politically engaged films and he said something about how he was proud of the work he did on those movies and of the movies overall but that he had to realize that not very many people went and actually watched those movies.  Washington may have reached a point where he realized that if he was trying to use his role as an entertainer to be a prophet or priest in the hopes of getting a message out that he wasn't just "preaching to the choir" that choir was himself and he concluded he had to make his politics his politics and his work his work. 

Recognizing that there are real limits to your influence doesn't have to be discouraging.  Knowing how little influence you really have in this giant world could give you a clearer appreciation of what it is you can do within the sphere of influence you do have. 


As to what I'd personally say an artist can do, I wrote a guest piece for Internet Monk back in 2012.

There Is neither Art nor Pop, neither Indie or Mainstream…

a little reflection on passages from Galatians and Colossians, and how if Christ has reconciled all things to Himself; if in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; then in music we should not think that people from every tribe and tongue can find salvation in Christ but their musical expressions are not included.


Eric Love said...

IMonk link is incorrect.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

ah, thanks for catching that. Should work now.