following up on my last #occupy post……
the Muppets have taught us so many things since 1976. and this week, they’ve taught us just how well popular Art can be used to call bullshit:
Miss Piggy was more combative and political; the puppet added that the charge was “almost as laughable as accusing Fox News of being news.”
(this is a response to this)
have the Muppets always been so intense?
anyway, i love it, and this is a great segue for me to post some of that which i recently wrote for my art school application on the subject of the current state and intersection of art vs. politics in America. this is definitively the longest post i’ve ever published, but if you’re interested, read on….
The Challenge of Art and Cultural Transfiguration in 2012 America
( edited for length/relevance)
The premise embedded here is that America is in decline. According to media reports and statistics, the Good Old Days are over and the U.S. is slowly sinking in global ranking in broad terms of social equality and freedom. Is this true? And if so, why?
These are enormous questions that can be answered in a multitude of ways, ranging from “Absolutely-America is definitely sliding downhill and drastic measures must be taken” (America is losing prosperity) to a more optimistic “Post-industrial America is still in transition which has caused some growing pains, but most social health and wealth indicators remain positive” (America is still winning.) As the 2012 election cycle heats up, the positions people are taking on this issue of The Fading American Dream are becoming heated. A recent discussion with popular social commentators Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, and Barbara Ehrenreich on the Al Jazeera network addressed this issue head on, and the question of whether or not it is time to “abandon” the American Dream (link).
Pretty much everyone believes the US is at a turning point. How can art not only defend itself in holding up a mirror to the world, but work to change the direction? What is most at stake?
As I have been thinking about the intersection of the arts and social movements, I have talked to many of my working artist friends with particular inquisition as to their perception of the state and role of art in our culture, and I have focused much more of my media reading onto this topic. My observations and thoughts are discussed liberally herein.
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is — it’s to imagine what is possible.” – Bell Hooks
THE RISE OF POPULIST ART
The shift from art being elitist to populist –Is this is a good thing?
The people most engaged in exposing societal truths are often not our politicians running for office, but our artists. The role of artists and art in American culture has always shifted depending on current events and social context, but over the past couple of decades this shifting has occurred much more rapidly with the pace of technology, and many artists are struggling to find their footing as the landscape shifts.
Up until a few decades ago, art was mostly an elitist endeavor in American society, and the definition of what was considered art was conservative, even if the art wasn’t. Now, technology has giving rise to what some call the “democratization of art”, giving access to nearly anyone. PressPausePlay is a short internet film released in early January 2012# in which music artists discuss how the internet and the democratization of the music industry has affected them, and where they see it going. There is a lot of excitement for the technology, but fear about the effects on culture.
What used to take specialized tools and knowledge can now be accomplished sometimes using only one machine: a computer. Now anyone can make a film, release an album, take a photo, paint a painting. The mystery and magic is gone! And so then the question emerges: Is art now valued less? Does democratized culture mean better art or is true talent instead drowned out?
One the one hand this is good – art is no longer only in the hands of those being funded or willing to starve. The barriers have fallen. Yes, the internet is full of widely-read artists and writers who haven’t made a dime, but many feel the freedom of platforms encourages and enables freedom of speech and expression.
On the other hand…As discussed in PressPausePlay, the constant competitive cycle of hype and backlash in the ever-faster moving arts and entertainment industries has critics calling artists like horse races, and everyone is either a winner or a loser. You are no longer allowed to just be an artist. Even the smallest, indie, DIY artists I see in cafes in Oakland hype as if it’s part of the art. The message becomes: if you’re not hyping your art, it must SUCK.
Democratization also means that some people feel that art is no longer of value worth paying for if you think you can make it yourself. What happens when you have no chance to make a living as an artist? Does this free you from the restraints of needing buyers/funders to produce your art? Does this open art up to the poor, or does eventually loop back and create an even more elite class of artist than has ever existed before?
These questions of economy are too difficult to answer here, but one downside people seem to agree on is that radical democratization of the art world seems to be leading to increasingly mimetic culture, and therefore something referred to as the Tyranny of Mass Taste.
MIMETIC/MEMETIC CULTURE and THE TYRANNY OF MASS TASTE
Mimetic: Characterized by, exhibiting, or of the nature of imitation or mimicry, especially relation to the arts. Plato contrasted mimesis, or imitation, with diegesis, or narrative.
Memetic: The meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as a “unit of culture” (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.) which is “hosted” in one or more individual minds, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind.#
One of the biggest laments about recent culture is that much has become what some consider to be increasingly mimetic and imitational, particularly with the kitschy use of memes.
Vanity Fair, January 2012:
“For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.”
While some view populist art as “a welcome release from the snobbery of the past” (NYT 1/24/99), there are certain negatives to mass culture. An apparent economic problem is that the value of art has become highly volatile and whimsical, based on the current trend of mass taste. In the controversial 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, revolutionary and countercultural street artist Banksy uses a highly kitschy artist to stage a huge show in L.A. – a show that he thinks proves that popular art has lost all value. The show was immensely popular and the Hollywood red carpet showed up and spent buckets of money on an artist no one had heard of who barely created anything new. It was all hype. He proved his point.
Ideas about how submission to mass culture will defeat us have been explored in many a dystopian novel, such as Huxley’s Brave New World (see: Orwell vs Huxley). This fear isn’t new. But the emergence of the tools that provide such immediacy is new, and in the past two generations we have seen the effects cause rapid shifts in art and culture. Some believe that the speed and quantity of information and mass art (re)production has caused any sense of mimetic kitsch as smart social commentary to be totally lost:
“In 1964 Susan Sontag became famous overnight when her ”Notes on ‘Camp’ ” appeared in Partisan Review. The essay established her as a pop apostle, bringing a newly brainy approach to figures like Greta Garbo, whom she called ”the great serious idol of Camp taste.” Camp, as Sontag saw it, refers to art that fails to do justice to the complexity of human nature but whose limitations can be amusing…When Sontag celebrated camp, and when Warhol, around the same time, elevated soup cans into art, they crossed the once-forbidden line separating high and low culture. Three decades later, the line is gone, and so is any sense of irony.” (NYT 1/24/99)
The July 2008 Adbusters magazine article “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization” declared that western culture had imitated and merged itself to death:
“Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society. But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the ‘Hipster.’”
As one artist in PressPausePlay stated bluntly: “Eventually the world becomes covered with mediocrity.”
While mimetic and populist culture has a lot of pitfalls and traps into feedback loops, we must also remember that the historical culture of art is to imitate in order to spread ideas. This is the only reason we know about Shakespeare – his work to this day continues to be replicated over and over again.
So it is not necessarily imitation that is the problem, but that our capitalist economy is placing higher value on revenue than cultural exchange. Artists feel forced into this economic paradigm by the tyranny of mass culture — when the value of everything is determined by the number of clicks, and repeating a meme gets you more than creating something new, where does that leave artists who want to eat?
Art is suffering from the same effects of consumer culture that everything else is: everything is now viewed from a marketing perspective. What is it, Why is it, What does it mean, What does it produce, How can it be replicated and then Explained to a market. If someone walks into a gallery and looks at an obscure piece of conceptual art and can’t answer these questions, they immediately dismiss the art as meaningless, and in the culture of grand funding, it’s not much different. Those awarding grants to artists want everything explained and their meanings clearly defined in sound bytes digestible by the general public.
Whereas in the past, art came to be because someone had an idea and wanted to share it, for many, this new accessibility to producing art has caused much of what used to be an elite form of expression to become yet another consumer good created by and for the masses, borne out of the desire for profit.
THE STIGMA and CHALLENGE OF POLITICAL and INTELLECTUAL ART
The second thing besides this concern about Mass Taste/the Democratization of Culture that causes conflict is the stigma against artists for being perceived as too political and/or overly intellectual in this populist economy, and therefore the difficulty and dissonance they have about using their art for social movements.
Nearly every artist will tell you they have a message. However, there seems to be a lot of dissonance in the art community about artists involved in political movements. I hear people say that they are no longer into certain musicians or artists because “they’re too political.” Yes, art is a form of escapism for many, and not everything must be political. But for those who choose to participate in society in a way beyond aesthetics, they should not be maligned. Many artists feel they are forced to make a choice between two poles – cater to a public that wants to escape and avoid controversial subjects, or be forever marked as a political artist, and not only lose audience with the apolitical, but also usually end up pigeonholed into some specific subset of politics, disallowed to change position without further alienating themselves.
In simple terms, being perceived as too political = not mass appeal enough, and therefore limited opportunities, exposure and income. A downside of highly mimetic and democratized art is that sincerity and intellectualism is deemed elitist – intellectualism has long been avoided by artists so as to have more mass appeal.
This is where you find a lot of “starving artists” – people unwilling to concede their principles in order to gain broader appeal. Some are martyrs for this cause, and in weighing the cost-benefits of “selling out” vs. staying insular to stay “pure”, they weigh in on the side of purity. The problem becomes: What is the value of your art if you are preaching to your choir? By remaining uncompromised and marginalized, for many artists that means that their audiences remain only those who already support their ideas. Their art never becomes a meme that gets any further than their own social circles. And for some, this is fine. Their art is a personal expression and they feel no responsibility to spread it any further than it naturally goes.
But for others this is a huge conflict. The point of making their art is to influence people, open eyes and ears, and change opinions, but the more people perceive you as being aligned to some side or another, the more difficult it is to have broader appeal and support and the harder it becomes to preach beyond the choir.
Some artists will actively negate the political nature of their work in order to avoid being pigeonholed. I remember watching the Scorsese documentary “No Direction Home“ about Bob Dylan, and hearing him say in an interview that none of his songs were political. My mind was blown. “The voice of a generation” was not political? Those songs were “not protest songs”?! I felt betrayed, as did many at the time. But, importantly, some felt that this – Dylan’s renunciation of his politics – was actually a deeper libertarian movement, in this case away from the cult of mass liberalism and a promotion of individual thinking.
Many artists and activists now share this point of view, that in today’s binary with-us-or-against-us political landscape, being overtly “political” is in some ways the worst way to try to get your message across (The Occupy Wall Street movement has remained staunchly unaligned with any politicians for this reason, while remaining highly intellectual). You will be dismissed if you reek of an agenda, and so many artists now strive to be as overtly apolitical as possible, keeping their agenda subtle. If art is seen as propaganda, it becomes immediately untrustworthy, and conservative thinkers believe that art should only be for art’s sake, otherwise it is propaganda. (Related: CIA use of beatnik artists in the Cold War in the 1950s.)
When did we shift from a society that values rebels who fight for transparency and freedom to one that wants everyone to keep quiet and move along as directed? And how did art, once the front line of social movements, the hallowed sacred space where everything could be spoken freely and presented without fear under bright lights, respected as the edge of political discourse, how did art allow itself to become as muted as the oppressed?
TRANSFIGURATION: THE FUNCTION and RESPONSIBILITY OF ART
“Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions.” — Earl Gray Stevens
One of the most inspiring and influential things I saw last year was the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) presentation from french artist JR, the 2011 TED Prize winner. In his presentation, he discusses this fundamental question: How can art change the world?
“Two weeks ago I was in my studio in Paris, and the phone rang and I heard, “Hey, JR, you won the TED Prize 2011. You have to make a wish to save the world.” I was lost. I mean, I can’t save the world. Nobody can. The world is fucked up. Come on, you have dictators ruling the world, population is growing by millions, there’s no more fish in the sea, the North Pole is melting and as the last TED Prize winner said, we’re all becoming fat. (Laughter) Except maybe French people. Whatever. So I called back and I told her, “Look, Amy, tell the TED guys I just won’t show up. I can’t do anything to save the world.” She said, “Hey, JR, your wish is not to save the world, but to change the world.” “Oh, all right.” (Laughter) “That’s cool.” I mean, technology, politics, business do change the world — not always in a good way, but they do. What about art? Could art change the world?” #
His presentation is completely enthralling and his decision to use his art to affect social change in a beautiful, meaningful way is one of the most inspiring things I saw all of last year and has stuck with me since.
Many artists don’t like being told they have any kind of social responsibility or that art should be for anything other than art’s pure sake and, like JR, have an instant negative pushback reaction to the proposition. Many artists live in insular communities and are proud of being esoteric, misunderstood outsiders. But as humans in a modern culture where the line between art and politics is ever blurrier, I believe that it is the role of artists to push that line harder than it ever has been. Art maybe does not have the “responsibility” to be political, but it affords opportunity and capital that should not be wasted. Art as a movement should ask the politically incorrect, difficult questions. When many artists hear this, they often sigh a deep sigh and express that socio-political art is too depressing and heavy and loaded and creatively stifling, for the reasons discussed above and more. I disagree, and maintain that it can be uplifting and inspiring, even fun!
Beyond aesthetics, as a function art should intellectually examine and reflect existing culture in order to inspire people to create a different one – the one they want.
OCCUPY ART: A CHANCE TO REENERGIZE
Back to the beginning: The U.S. can make social progress. We have all the tools of modern society, all the democratic values in place. We need to reframe our definition of democratic participation in this society from an apathetic spectatorship to active participation once again. As one friend stated, “the major advantage of a deep recession is you have a lot of overeducated people with time on their hands and deviousness in their hearts.”
And that leads us to the Occupy movement, arguably now the largest self-proclaimed non-political social movement the U.S. has seen in decades and certainly the most civically engaged I have ever seen most of my Gen X/Y peers. This populist social movement that aims to engage everyone in the fight against corruption and inequality, something you’d think everyone would get behind, has suffered from serious media and branding issues. But recently the Occupy movement has started realizing the value of using art to spread ideas, and how visual art can impact and engage people faster and more effectively than angry protests and lengthy diatribes. See NYT “Assessing the art of the Occupy movement” 12/5/11 and/or the Occuprint.org# visual art gallery .
[In January] the Robert Berman Gallery [Santa Monica] presented an exhibit titled Just Occupy, which gathered a collection of photography from photojournalists Ted Soqui and Christopher Felver, as well as works from Shepard Fairey. The pieces shown centered on the L.A. Occupy movement that took shape during 2011 and it also marks the first major exhibition documenting this particular moment in time and those people who experienced it. The majority of the show included photographs from Soqui who shot the iconic image of the female protester wearing the 99% bandana which was later reworked by Fairey for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Issue. - http://arrestedmotion.com/2012/01/openings-just-occupy-robert-berman-gallery/
February 12, 2012 has been designated Occupy Art day (The People’s Movement In Visual), and there is also a Call to Create for the May Day Occupy action, encouraging people from all walks of life to create and share visual art that expresses their frustations and desires for America. I for one am excited to see where this movement goes. Hopefully it provides an instigation and platform for more artists to re-engage the socio-politcal realm, and to feel supported, accepted and productive in doing so.
The tools that have enabled the vast democratization and rise of populist art and media should not be feared as much as embraced and leveraged for social change at this critical juncture in American culture, by artists and everyone else invested in keeping The American Dream alive. My friend Miranda Caroligne, maker of clothing in San Francisco and staunch advocate of socially-conscious art and civic participation, would agree: We are beyond a time when actions can exist without meaning. The intellectual and meaningful needs to be woven through our art and our lives with every stitch.
“Hitherto, philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” –MarxFiled in art, culture and random linkage, personal favorites | Tagged with #occupyart, #occupywallstreet, #ows, adbusters, banksy, capitalism, huxley, marxisms, memetic, mimetic, shepard fairey, TED | Comment (0)