“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” –George Orwell
Art has always affected the political landscape. From George Carlin’s standup to Picasso’s Guernica, from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl to Banksy’s graffiti, from Avatar to Fight Club, art is a weapon in the battlefield of ideas.
As it turns out, the most famous political art of all time, George Orwell’s 1984, is fast becoming a weapon that is backfiring. When I say “political” I’m not talking about bipartisan claptrap and pithy diatribes launched between leftist and rightist talking heads. I’m talking about the struggle for power in our culture. Art can effectively swing the power struggle. Yes, art can be persuasive. Art jolts us awake.
It declares to any and all modes of power: “When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will be free.” And, have no illusions, all art is outside the law. Even that last sentence is a fragment of art that is attempting to persuade you that “all art is outside the law.” In fact, this entire article is a piece of political art that is attempting to persuade you that art is a weapon in political warfare. And it’s meant to be persuasive. I genuinely want to persuade you. Why? Because I think it’s important, and I sincerely hope that you will think it’s important as well. Your mind body and soul is on the line. Here then are four ways that art is a weapon on the battlefield of ideas.
Art can Help us to Imagine what’s possible
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is; it’s to imagine what’s possible.” –Bell Hooks
Art can be both the ultimate purveyor of hope and the sad whisperer of despair. By encouraging us to engage with the real world in new ways, art takes despair and transforms it into hope, and vice versa. It puts things into perspective by forcing us to appreciate the fleeting impermanence of all things, most especially the impermanence of the self.
Much of the human condition cannot be put into words. And so art acts as a medium between our condition and our perception of it. We can hold up a book, or a painting, or a sculpture and simply say, “This is me.” Art stands between typical language and a “language older than words” and declares itself as a force to be reckoned with.
Within the maelstrom of political ideology, art asserts itself as a real symbolic energy that we can hang our hats on. The question is: are we hanging our hats on a healthy or unhealthy ideology? Art can be used as a tool for suppression (unhealthy) or as a tool for liberation (healthy). As artists, as human beings, it is our duty to decide which we will become: suppressor or liberator.
Art can be Divisive Propaganda
“The supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and cloak the fear by which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation.” –Baruch Spinoza
What is art? For the suppressor, art is used for brainwashing, consumption, and hoarding; it is something to be contained. For the liberator, art is used for thought, learning, and free expression; it is something to be liberated. Human beings are not cut and dry, black and white, creatures. We are each a multiplicity in ourselves, an amalgam of sub-selves. As such, we are extremely susceptible to psychosocial influences. Art can be the ultimate balancing agent, or it can throw things out of whack.
It reveals to us, with unusual clarity, the full range of our abilities, and helps us to reevaluate our inner natures and direct us towards the healthiest, most promising version of ourselves. But art can also be oppressing. There are unhealthy oppressors, usually systems of power vainly struggling to maintain their power, who use art (commercials, corporate news, TV programming, comics) as mind control to shape the cultural milieu and pacify the masses. This is done by forcing the masses into identifying with a particular political agenda and then repudiating those with differing interests.
Art can be used for good (healthy), or for evil (unhealthy). But there is no doubt that it is divisive. One must create wisely, for there is power in art, and we must be responsible with that power. Conversely, it is our duty to make those who would use the power of art in oppressive ways accountable for their actions. This too can be done through art.
Art can Serve the Cause of Emancipation
“If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenges of apocalyptic times.” –Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Have you traded in your freedom for the illusion of security, or have you taken it upon yourself to daily justify your freedom in the face of all illusions? Under the current unsustainable system, which is creating unhealthy circumstances across the globe, anxiety and anguish is the rational and healthy response.
They are not signs of weakness, but of courage trying to burst out. Grieving over the effects of ecocide, tyranny and rape is the appropriate reaction. But instead of suppressing these emotions we must confront them. Grief can be transformed into righteous anger can be transformed into proactive courage can be transformed into art.
In the face of an apocalyptic scenario, we must ourselves become apocalyptic, not as isolated radicals but as an organized collective through the medium of art. The term “Apocalypse” isn’t limited to end of the world scenarios; it can also mean a revelation, a lifting of the veil, or a disclosure of something hidden.
Art can be the medium by which we accomplish this. Art lifts veils that otherwise cannot be lifted. It reveals secrets that could not have been revealed in any other way. Art itself may not be able to change the world, but it can inspire those who will. And that’s all we need it to be. The heart of emancipation is inspiration.
Art can Transform Despair into Action
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” –Stephen Binko
Revolutionary art has the power to propel history forward. We must be able to confront the world as it is, by apocalyptically revealing what has been hidden, and then imagine how we can go about doing things differently. Art can be the medium for such imagining.
Peeling back what has been hidden from us can be upsetting, especially when we realize how much we’ve been lied to. Pulling back the curtain only to realize that we’ve been bamboozled by a lying wizard can really suck.
Despair can easily creep in. For most people it will be too much for them to handle, and they will experience cognitive dissonance and then tragically suppress the discovery. But for those of us who have been set free and then angered by the truth, there is another way other than suppression.
There is liberation through revolutionary art. Don’t be a “potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor.” Be a liberator. You start with liberating yourself. Suppressing the emotions gleaned from the discovery of the bamboozlement is exactly what the oppressors want. They want you to turn on the TV to drown out the truth. They want to placate you with mindless advertisements. Don’t give in. I know it’s hard.
You’ve been conditioned. But it’s your responsibility to recondition that condition. One way to do that is through the genuine self-expression of your own art. Create an advertisement of your own. Compose a meme. Write an angry poem. Be like Eminem on that bus on the movie 8 Mile and write a passionate rap song. Paint a politically dissonant painting. Tag a Chase bank or a Wells Fargo. Get out there and express yourself. Blow off some steam in a healthy way. Just make sure you’re responsible with your power. Rebellious art can liberate your soul. And even if it doesn’t, at least you’re being creative.