Question: How should artists become politically engaged?
Below, a variety of working artists weigh in on the question of what it means to be politically engaged, both personally and professionally.
“First, you must approach the task in good faith, with humility and a willingness to listen. No one knows everything, and those who are newer to political activism or radical thought have a lot to learn, just as those who have been involved for decades must continually challenge themselves to keep growing and learning. Listen, listen, listen to artists and organizers who have been doing this work for longer than you have; listen to marginalized voices, and to those who wish they had a microphone to scream into but don’t. Be mindful of your platform, and of what a privilege it is to have one. Be forthright and purposeful; don’t use your political leanings as a crutch (i.e. style is important, but substance is the bottom line. You can have the best praxis in the world, but if your riffs are unintentionally sloppy, it’s going to be that much harder to get people to listen). Don’t be preachy—be honest. Do not suffer fools or walk fences—don’t collaborate with fascists onstage or on wax. Stand for something.”
“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. I’m not a political artist. Of course some of my friends, who are political artists, would be super strict about that. They would say, “If art is not political, then it’s not valuable.” I don’t agree with that.
Of course, this is not just about artists. As human beings on this planet, we should all be politically involved. The fact is that we have to be, because of things like our climate, because of nuclear weapons. In many ways since the ’60s, it looks like nothing has really changed. We’re still going back to the paradigm of the Cold War. It’s like we’re walking in place, over and over again, for a century.”
“The thing is, I am a musician. I’m good at music. I’m not trained in politics. I don’t always know the right thing to do. Sometimes I say the wrong thing. I don’t want to be a role model, because I might do the wrong thing. If you actually listen to my lyrics you’d be able to tell, I’m not that great of a person. I think it’s a really heavy burden on artists these days, because not only do they have to be good at music, they have to be a lifestyle. They have to be a package. They have to be a leader.
They have to be political, and they have to “use their platform for good.” So much is expected of artists, when actually artists are usually the people who are the most fucked up, or just don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t know what to tell people. I feel like I didn’t sign up to be a superhero, I just want to make songs.
I understand where that urge comes from, because artists are the people who are in public, and we look at the people who are visible. It’s natural, I guess, for people to see someone’s face all the time, and then wonder what they’re thinking. I should only speak for myself, but I don’t know how to make shit. I don’t know much about American history or politics. I just know how to write a good song about something I felt. I don’t think it’s wise to turn to me, and say, “What should we do?” I don’t know, I want someone to tell me…”
“Right now artists especially, and also writers, are panicking. I think a lot of us are questioning what is the efficacy of our work? What is the efficacy of this poem that I’m writing? How relevant is it going to be? Is it even worth writing? Or if you’re painter, you’re thinking, how is this painting going to matter? Or it suddenly seems completely disconnected from a government that’s going to be run by a demagogue.
Visual artists are caught in this bind. They’re in this deregulated market. In fact, probably though, a lot of them will benefit from Trump. If Trump gives tax cuts to the rich, it’s going to trickle down to the artists and the institutions… So what do you do about that?
I think it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s not just the objects we make, but the process in which we make that object. I think during this time, there’ll be more room for more collaborative efforts. People working together. Artists are already doing that right now, but I think there is going to be more of that, or there should be more of that. I think that’s what artists are craving right now.”
“You have to feel. Does it rumble inside you? Read. Listen. Watch. You can’t be ‘too smart.’ Communicate. Dislodge. Rebuild. Teach. Your work will interact with your being.”
“I don’t think art should be activist. Activism has specific agendas. “I want people to stop using plastic cups.” That’s a very specific agenda. The goal is to promote a very specific and targeted change in society. That’s great, I consider myself an activist at times—but that’s very different from my art practice.
Now if we think of “political” in the broader sense, as in the way we relate to others in our everyday lives, the way we organize ourselves, I do think art is political because it can have a deep impact in society. But this impact can’t be quantified or calculated, it’s out of the artist’s control. To me that is the main difference. It’s important to not confuse art with activism. In art, I don’t have an agenda with regards to making people think in specific ways. I’m much more interested in putting the issues I consider to be relevant on the table so we can discuss them collectively, regardless of each person’s conclusions.
In this sense I think all art is political, regardless of how conscious the artist is of that fact. When working in the realm of representation we take positions and make political gestures. I think a good question can be: How much are artists these days, including the formalists, aware of the political dimension of their work?”
“Yeah, like you said, the political has always been a concern on my work. It’s always been a concern of the work of people who I keep around me. I guess what might feel new for some doesn’t feel new for me because I already saturate myself in the people that are out here rallying about some shit. Welcome everybody else to the party.
I was writing up a statement for somebody the other day and I said, “Welcome to how it has been”—to all the people who are currently opening their eyes and realizing how fucked up shit has been and that maybe it’s reaching a new level of fucked up. Yeah, sure, you always need more soldiers for the cause. You always need more homies that are down to fuck up some shit and to not let the new chaos become normal. Welcome all those people to doing that work.
A part of me feels like calling that rise in political awareness of poetry “new” does the double work of also erasing the work of poets of color, queer folks, and a lot of folks who have been doing that work for a long, long, long time and whose poems didn’t change in November, who kept on writing, who maybe if anything kept doing the same thing but just went deeper into the work they’re already doing. But I’m glad that people who thought they could be apolitical before realize how dumb of a thought that was and how irresponsible of a position that is to take as an artist.”
“If we really know what we want, and are aware of what’s going on in our context/world, we will look for solutions. When you actually become engaged socially/politically, then you don’t need to illustrate your intentions. Instead, your actions make it clear.
Creativity, inspiration… we all have something to offer, but if you want to offer more, you must focus your efforts and study, read, research, observe, and imagine. Work hard. Pay attention to your intuition, and always remember what you would like to see happen. We are in a time of big changes because of new technology, global warming, and post-left/right politics. Maybe it’s a time to rethink everything?”
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