Nearly eight years ago when I started this blog, Obama had just won the presidency in a surge of hope and promises of change. All this time, I have written about artists trying to affect change and address societal injustices in some form or another. I have debated whether something is or is not “art,” whether we can judge a work of social practice on its ameliorative properties or its aesthetic grounding, what use are symbols and mediation and good branding.
How silly those questions seem right now.
After inevitable grief and mourning from many in my community post-election, I am hearing a truly present fear that fascism will gain hold in our government and our neighborhoods, that vulnerable people will be disenfranchised and rounded up, that progress will be quickly rolled back, that hate crimes will sweep the nation. Yet in the face of this deep anxiety, a new wave of action and engagement is burgeoning. Some of us are still in the bargaining phase, Democrats and reluctant Trump voters alike – “It won’t be that bad. He won’t follow through on that stuff. He said a lot of things he didn’t mean just to get elected. He’s going to do some good things.” This is a tempting narrative. I want to hope for the best, that our resilient country can handle his chaos. That progress is still possible under these conditions. That a coalition of Never Trump Republicans and Democratic elected officials will provide a check on his power. But I also know this kind of bargaining and denial is precisely how fascism takes root. I am quite sobered by the words of Masha Gessen, who has lived in Putin’s Russia for many years. In her article Autocracy: Rules for Survival, she sets forth six rules (directly paraphrased):
Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.
Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Catastrophes unfold over time.
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. The free press, judiciary and checks and balances in government can be dismantled more quickly than we realize.
Rule #4: Be outraged. In the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.
Rule #5: Don’t make compromises. And don’t let your elected officials make them either. In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral.
Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever, and this should not be normal. But resistance – stubborn, uncompromising, outraged – should be.
Read the full article here. It’s worth it.
Complacency, irony, and glibness have disappeared overnight. The hipster is suddenly obsolete. Working in the arts and particularly with socially-engaged artists in Southern California, I know a lot of people who are always hitting the streets for some cause or another, and they have been for years. I highly respect them and sometimes join them – these struggles are not new. But this feels so different. This is a radical awakening that is affecting everybody I know, a broad cultural reaction. I don’t have anything other than anecdotal evidence for this – call it a gut reaction. But I can’t remember the last time everyone I knew was engaged in the same passionate, earnest, nuanced and difficult conversation. My comedy writer and art worker friends alike are radicalizing, searching for what to do, where to donate, how to volunteer, how to get involved in local politics, how to get involved period. Family members are quitting their jobs and thinking about getting into community organizing. Museum leaders are gathering to figure out how to attack this on the cultural front. Punk is suddenly relevant again and bubblegum pop seems newly stupid. Strangers on the train are talking with each other in earnest, urgent voices about how there is “work to do,” and they are “more interested in politics” than ever before. Suddenly Californians woke up on Wednesday morning as Federalists, and are talking about fiercely protecting our state (that actually voted quite progressively on Election Day) as a bulwark against what is to come.
Many of us are expressing regret at how “in the bubble” we were, how complacent, how blindsided. It could be that some of us let ourselves become utterly disconnected, safe in an echo chamber of our own making. Cradled by technology, perhaps we forgot how hard and uncomfortable it is to be vulnerable, and honest, and truly connected with one another. Maybe some of us forgot how to listen in person, how to reach out, and how to seek out dissent and engage with it proactively and productively. The fact that so many people in my communities are awakening to the gaps in their own connectivity with a radicalized response is my fragile, flickering scrim of hope in this dark time.
So what now?
We all need tools moving forward to prepare for the fight ahead, so here are a few things I suggest.
- Read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed
I’ve heard a lot of Democrats asking recently why people in Middle America seemingly voted against their interests for Donald Trump (who at the very least will probably remove their health insurance, tank the economy, and deregulate predatory lenders that disproportionately take advantage of and bankrupt working class people). They wonder with outrage and dismay and throw their hands up. Freire’s famous treaty on critical pedagogy may provide some answers – it is all about how oppressive regimes take and keep power over their colonized subjects.
Yet what I love about this work is that it offers not only clear-eyed analysis of totalitarian tactics, but also both theoretical and methodological solutions. One of his core tenets is the dialogical process of learning and knowing – radical listening and the ability to theorize together through our experiences. This is far beyond a therapy session or the airing of grievances, but a truly engaged awakening of conscience and personal empowerment that leads to organized action. That is the power of radical pedagogy, but it involves reaching out to the disaffected, the disgruntled, the angry, the left-behind. No matter who they voted for. Trump voters (many of them) are victims as well of this neoliberal capitalist system we’ve all complacently ascribed to, and we must see that for what it is.
As Richard Schaull describes in the introduction to Freire’s book, “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom,’ the means by which women and men deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Let us ensure that education moves ever towards a ‘practice of freedom’ – and this pedagogy is far from limited to schools, it is something we must all take responsibility for.
Get it. Read it. Its relevance today is breathtaking.
- Cultivate a State of Readiness
I am preparing to be uncomfortable more often. At a current Lucky Dragons exhibition at 18th Street Arts Center*, an ominous soundtrack played a heavily distorted voice intoning “State of Readiness.” It wasn’t always clear what was being said, but through the murk it would suddenly crystallize. It was an anxious, bodily agitation for me, that unclear intonation reverberating around the room. This was three days before the election, but now it seems like foreshadowing.
I want to be in a state of readiness to engage. To speak with people who do not agree with me, to read and research and find places and projects to donate my time and efforts. To teach, to engage in radical pedagogy whenever possible. To organize. I have had more urgent conversations about politics in the past few days than ever before in my life, some of those with people who disagree with me on candidates, policies and values. It has been exhausting, uncomfortable, and necessary. But this listening, dialogic process is preparing me for the times ahead so I can be poised, informed, and ready.
- Create and Support a New Social Arte Util
Tania Bruguera, an artist whom I greatly admire and who uses her privileged status as a recognized international artist to leverage new systems for political change, protest, and organizing, understands what we are up against. She was recently arrested in Cuba, a totalitarian regime, for attempting a performance in a public plaza about free speech. Long have we gone back and forth about the symbolic versus useful aspects of social practice art, and Tania wrote this on Facebook after the election (an excerpt of her full post):
“The time for the symbolic has ended. Art is now a tool—not to make the system work better, but to change the system. The need for creativity and for tools to help with political imagination are greater than ever. The time to do art for all has arrived and we need to be proud of it.”
I’m tired of that obsolete old modernist adage, that useful things are not art, and that art must not be useful. Art has often been used as a tool in times of great social stress, particularly in the early 20th century – from the Situationists to Dada to Surrealism. There is still power in symbol and beauty, but artists are well-trained for these situations. They have privilege to leverage, creativity to draw upon, impossible frames to reimagine, global networks to organize, and lots of practice living resourcefully in the midst of scarcity. Artists are not the only answer, but are part of the profound foundation of a free society. It is time to make Arte Util, art that is useful, important art, that agitates, and inspires.
*Full disclosure: I work at 18th Street Arts Center, but this is an honest personal account, not a review nor promotional attempt.