Ask TCI: How do I focus on creating in the current political climate?
FROM : Anonymous (via Ask TCI on our homepage)
Q: How do I focus on creating while not letting myself be crushed by the current political climate?
A: Withdraw as much as you can from the cesspool of internet news and social media sites, with their dopamine hits of shock and outrage. There are plenty of people doing positive work that media doesn’t expose. If you drive most of the time, try breaking up the routine by taking public transit. Walk. Read a book, look at visual art. The secret agenda of American electoral politics is to get the public so bored and burnt out we won’t take any action at all. Turn them off and save your rage for something you can really effect. Give yourself a chance to see what else is going on.
I’ve become more immersed in the fantastical. Everything I’ve been writing recently is, outside of the band. Short poems, most of which have a fantastical aspect to them. I like to imagine the characters that I write about being uplifted or torn down by the distorted reality around them. And I need to have no references to any current media or political climate. For me, writing is partially an escape from those things. While I think it’s important to be informed, I often come out the other end of reading political issues and opinions with a heavy malaise.
The notion of “political art” is something that comes up a lot lately, for obvious reasons. What does it mean to make political art? What does it look like? What makes it successful? Also, do artists have a responsibility to be addressing the current political landscape in their work?
I don’t think they do, actually. I know that this is something a lot of artists are feeling and struggling with though. I think that being an artist just means that you have a responsibility to be your own free person and to develop your own path, which doesn’t have to be political. I think you’re already making a political statement just by experiencing your own freedom through art.
Of course, in addition to making your own art, you obviously can still be an involved citizen. You don’t have to express your politics through your art. Your art can be apolitical and you can make a difference in other ways. Go and protest. Go and tell people about what’s going on in prisons. You don’t have to use your art to do that. Being an engaged and politically involved citizen is way more important than being a political artist.
In your mind, what’s the role of the artist when it comes to politics?
I’ve never felt that art was going to change the world that way. I’m not sure art changes the world, period. I know it affects us deeply, in our experience as individuals, but en masse? No, I don’t think so. I think a lot of the certifiable political art of the past was either corrupt, like you have with the political Realists, or it was speaking to an audience that was already there. I don’t see any point in taking politics in a context of aestheticization. It’s a problem when you see it. Certain artists have done it with issues around pedophilia, things like this, and it’s a problematic relationship because it’s almost never truly conceptual. If it is truly conceptual, then you don’t have any audience, it’s so minimal.
I don’t consider myself a political cartoonist. I say that because I don’t want to offend the actual political cartoonists that are in the trenches drawing every day and commenting on things that are happening. I admire that so much and I wish I could work that way more, but I also want to find happiness too and not totally lose my center or something. I’m very aware of things that are happening in the world. Fuck. Sickened by the Trump election. Horrified, honestly, by it and the people that’s he’s bringing along. Still, it’s honestly hard for me to find the words or find the imagery sometimes. I feel like it’s been helpful to see how other people are handling it. I think that if I’m going to make a comment on something I feel like I have to soak it in for a minute. I worked with Shepard Fairey in the past and I admire what he does as a political artist and other political cartoonists that do what they do. At the same time, I also am interested in just making jokes and fucking off. It’s getting harder and harder to keep that corner of my world peaceful. Drawing was always a way for me to escape the world, but that has become harder and harder to do.
There’s nothing positive about this moment. There’s so much at stake, and there are so many people who are now even more vulnerable than they were before November 8th. I do think that there is encouragement to be found, and there is hope to be found, of course. We’re seeing people motivated and galvanized in a way I haven’t seen, and I feel myself more galvanized in a way I haven’t been. What I hope is that we take this energy, that we’re not just going to be upset about the election, we’re going to do something, and we’re going to do our best to hold Trump and his cronies accountable over the next four years, and that we’re going to make sure that in four years he does not get reelected. Yes, this is a hopeful moment, because we just have to do everything in our power as individuals, and collectively, to make sure the damage that Trump might do is contained as best as we can keep it contained.
When I came back home the day afterwards, it was very shocking. After about two weeks I thought “I have this album that I need to work on so I have to go back in the studio because being here, on the sofa, following the news is not going to improve any of this.”
The album follows a narrative arc. It starts with a song called “November” which I thought encapsulated the sadness of that month for me. Then it moves on and “Summer Night (Bat Song)” is about the next summer, 2016. I was at my parents’ and I had my windows open all day. It was a beautiful summer and I would watch the birds in the afternoon and wait for the first bats to appear. It’s really magical, the moment when it’s starting to get dark.
One evening there was this bat hunting in the garden and all of a sudden it flew in my direction. I had my windows wide open and it turned at the last microsecond. I thought it was a beautiful metaphor. I wish that my thoughts could be as controlled as the bat’s flight. When thoughts start going in the wrong direction, I wish I had the ability to stop and just go back to a more normal mode of thinking.
I think that’s a good example of how real life and doing something creative can interact.
When I worked for talk shows like Totally Biased or Late Night with Seth Meyers, those are very news driven shows, so you had to be on top of what was happening in the world because that’s mostly what you were writing off of. Right now obviously it feels hard to ignore the news because it feels more urgent than usual. I’m still not someone who immerses myself in current events and then is like, what do I want to talk about? When I’m generating material, I’ll start from my own life and then tie in bigger themes as they make sense. I’m more likely to start on a more mundane personal level and then blow it out into bigger themes.
I feel like people tend to make the things that they want to see in the world. Most of my projects are based on the web, specifically because I’m trying to use the internet in the way that I feel it should be used. Instead of getting sucked into echo chambers, I think it’s important to try and distribute information freely, and also give people the ability to create their own content critically.
Chris Kraus is the author of four novels, including Aliens & Anorexia, I Love Dick, and Torpor, and two books of art and cultural criticism, all published by Semiotext(e). She was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow and teaches writing at European Graduate School. Her newest book, After Kathy Acker, a biography of the writer Kathy Acker, is out in August 2017 on MIT Press, and her novel I Love Dick was recently adapted by Jill Soloway for Amazon. Here, Kraus discusses work habits, how writing’s similar and different to making films, why she’s not into “feedback,” and how writing groups can be more like covens.
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