Op Ed

Politics Through an Artistic Lens

A three part series talking art and politics in the most trying of political circumstances

by

Installation view of Ai Weiwei: Life Cycle, at the Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles. Courtesy the artist and Marciano Art Foundation. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com

This is a three-part series that was originally published in the free Hassle weekly newsletter. If you like this piece, please consider subscribing to our newsletter here and/or consider supporting Boston Hassle on Patreon

Part I – What Art Is.

 

Art, aht. AHT. The fuck is that shit anyway? Well, this part of this essay will try to take the various answers to that question and come to a somewhat easily understood, general definition of a word that people seem to care less and less about.

Before the exposition, regular readers may already know about my political and cultural biases but it ought to be stated upfront that well, haha calling me a commie punk wouldn’t really be that far off. But as I intimated last week, I have had a realization this year that I classify myself as an anarchist and an abolitionist. So, those are my biases and inform my opinions about art and art history constantly.

However, I go forward with the knowledge that there could very well be conservative interpretation and appreciation for these very same arts. However, I do not think they are the right ones, nor do I really care about them, as I hope this essay will illuminate why by the end without me having to state the sentiment in full.

Let us start with an expansive definition of art, which I don’t think anyone agrees with if you’re not 21 and on a bunch of psychedelics, which is ‘everything is art’. Art is all around whether you’re walking through the city, in a hoarder basement, or in the Vatican. Is that toilet art? We all know about R. Mutt. In fact, continuing on with this logic, discerning who and who is not an ‘artist’ making their ‘art’ it becomes more difficult to discern. Is the baker an artist? What if he doesn’t really give a shit about baking and just needs a paycheck but another baker consider themselves an artist, are they now both inspired creators?

You can say yes here under the ‘art as life’ category, however let us leave that aside for the moment and oscillate to the other extreme, a narrow interpretation of art which I disagree with much more than the broad definition.

There are two key distinctions within the narrow definition I would like to immediately refute. One, that art is only stored in major museums and galleries and/or put out by Penguin or Simon & Schuster and so on. You are probably familiar with this definition so I won’t dwell on it too much, I’m just saying it is bullshit.

My next assertion may start to ruffle some feathers. Art is not what you get paid to do. If you have ever been a part of a quickly cobbled together DIY show for an out of town band, you know exactly what I mean. There are too many extenuating circumstances for that to be a barrier.

Working between these few restrictions, let us look at some other definitions of art. According to the Oxford dictionary, here is the first definition that comes up:

“the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.“

Booooo, this definition of Tolstoy’s is perhaps our running model for my exercise:

“Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity“

& Here is another one of my personal favorites from Nietzsche, “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”

Both Nietzsche’s view and Tolstoy’s views are my general opinions on art, being both in solidarity with each other to celebrate in, but also as an inherent ameliorative to the circumstances at hand. Meaning, to me, that art is about hope. And so it is a vehicle of hope and imagining where too much soothing pads us from the harsh reality of the world. But on the other side of this, too much togetherness, ‘popular art’ is a cheapened form to keep the masses delusional.

Art to me operates between these two parameters, art has to break alienation, but at the same time, art must absorb the truth enough to reveal to us our powerlessness just enough for us to do something about it even if that something is just to make art. Art to me includes these two things. And it is more important here to consider the potential of these parameters than the limiting factors because their potential far outweighs the limits.

The potential for art is vast in that one of the tenets is to bring people together and have them feel a commonality. But art fails when it does not reveal something about ourselves. I am purposely leaving this part of my definition of art open-ended since obviously personal revelation is inherently subjective.

However, I stress revelation here to the max, making art an earnest practice of increasing sensitivity and vulnerability of the human condition. Without these immediate awakenings then we endlessly careen on a path of choking on the truth too much so that we can no longer speak and express and stand in solidarity and reclaim the narrative away from the ‘victors’ narrative.

Art is striving in hope against the dominant cultural narrative of the artist’s time. And in my view, only through this striving can revelation take place. However, art does not take place in a vacuum. As much as it is about a person’s subjective experience, art takes on another character under the public guise. Failure to notice this is just what it is, short-sighted. Art, more than anything else shows us, that all tyranny, coming from a “Big Sir” or the POTUS, is insidious and ought not to be permitted.

This is what art is to me. This demonstrates that ‘art as life’ cuts much deeper than simply waking up and participating ‘arts’ liberal, culinary, or otherwise, and hating your life because of it. Art, for survival’s sake, needs to be redemptive, revelatory, immediate, risky, and if you follow me enough, art needs to be a rebellious act against the status quo of reality.

Exhibition installation view of Introducing Tony Conrad: A Retrospective at MIT List Visual Arts Center (October 18, 2018 – January 6, 2019).
Photo: Peter Harris Studio

Part II – What Is Politics to an Artist?

 

I will start part II of this essay with what I think is one of the most brilliant quotes about politics I have ever heard, from none other than Sadam Hussein:

“Politics is when you say you are going to do one thing while intending to do another. Then you do neither what you said nor what you intended.”

(I don’t go online and search for Sadam Hussein quotes, the Blowback podcast about the Iraq war referenced this quote numerous times and it has since stuck with me.)

Sounds a lot like the tricky business of life to me.

Perhaps this is funny but I am not joking. Artists and writers by their nature revolt against reality to make something new. Yet everything outside the process of creation is in fact reality.

Asking the question ‘what is reality?’ is redundancy here. We all know what it is, it is the concrete roads, highways, microwaves, cell phones, couches, perception, interaction, and on and on. But what makes all these things?

Organizations and systems of thought, all of which are inherently political or were shaped by people and their interactions. For example, whenever you find yourself complaining about your job and say to your friend ‘it is all political’ that is in the broadest sense a really solid explanation of how politics can be viewed from a laypersons perspective.

However, if you want to get more technical about it, yeah sure, politics is government local, state, and federal. It is the UN, the EU, laws courts, wars, legislatures, armies, cops, the whole gamut. Politics is all around us. It dictates our pay, our taxes, whether or not we can build an addition to our houses, it watches what we do on our cell-phones and water meters, and on and on.

Which is why I view politics and generally use it in its broadest usage.

It may be wise to point out here how I defined art in this newsletter last week. The definition of art is to me, narrow. It involves a strict, intense dichotomy of both solidarity and introspection. ‘Art’ ‘good art’ typically follows these rules, leaving much else in the dust as mere entertainment.

Life becomes contaminated with government and an artist’s space and work is a place perhaps not free of taint, but where you can modulate and feel free of such a ‘political’ realm of existence.

For an expanded discussion of how politics and art co-mingle, check out part III below.

Part III – Where To Go From Here?

 

I can’t stop biting my nails coming to the ends of thoughts and imaginations. In the suspense of the hot nothingness to come. This essay is supposed to be the ‘dramatic’ conclusion of my three-part series on art and politics but I’m too pissed off listening to The Cramps constantly at the crossroads of what to do next muzzled by a mountain of student debt and the massive asteroid I carry on my back called depression to write a draft or a single word lately.

I was walking around downtown the other day on Tremont killing time when a man in a wheelchair who was experiencing homelessness came up to me and started speaking to me. I had my headphones on and was listening to Landowner’s new album Consultant and under usual circumstances, I take off my headphones and at least talk to them and treat people as well as I can. But we’re in a pandemic and I was hesitant to talk. I’m pretty sure the music broke me because I exhaled and paused my music and took my headphones off and spoke to him. He thanked me and I noticed he was eating a chicken drumstick out of a plastic container. He would later tell me the chicken was spoiled and put the lid on it and threw it on the ground. He wanted a bus ticket to get to Worcester because he told me had a bed at a shelter. I told him I don’t carry cash and didn’t have any food to offer him. He was adamant but I truly had nothing on me except a seltzer so I gave him the rest of that. Later on my walk, all I noticed were the homeless that are out, mainly because, while they can, they prefer to sleep outside of shelters, in fear of contracting the coronavirus.

Looking for something absurd? Look no further than most corners of city streets for the foremost absurdity of modern living.

Living with this constant moral abomination is something we city dwellers deal with every single day. And most of us are desensitized to it as just being a fact of life. But just because it is a fact of life and normally accepted by society doesn’t mean that it is not absurd, a mere debauched policy decision. For example, for every person experiencing homeless across the country, there are 31 empty housing units.

I tell this story and cite these statistics in the essay because a quote from a friend’s mom has always stuck with me. She asked me what I wanted to in life and I told her I wanted to be a writer and she laughed at me and said “people who are reading the books aren’t the ones who need your help.”

To bring up Nietzsche again, I was flipping through the infamous and suspect Will to Power recently that stares me in the face from my bookshelf every time I go to sleep and flipped to a page where well, Nietzsche likened socialism to a mole in the ground in society that needed to be flushed out. Meh, disagree. But Nietzsche went on “Socialism nullifies life.”

This is a tough pill to swallow, for me at least, I’m fucking obsessed with Nietzsche. Understand, however, Nietzsche spent far more time lambasting everything German, German nationalism, and anything that would depict someone as a “good german” if you think Nietzsche has any real connection to fascism.

But today I would say back to Nietzsche, “How is the unfettered capitalism we live under today do anything but nullify life. Capitalism is a death machine.” So perhaps my interpretation of this remark to me would signal something beyond socialism that Nietzsche is urging us to think about.

As I was walking that night thinking about this writing I truly decided that politics is the essence of life, it is inherent, intractable, it is who we are and that we shouldn’t shy away from its complications, miseries, and satisfactions. However the question is how art differs from the essence of life, the absurd essence of life our nature carried us to so far.

So when speaking about how art and politics interact and well, what exactly do we leftie artists exactly do to live an ethical life, given the parameters set before us? As far as I can say I would say just to figure it out for yourself. Sorry, I am sure that wasn’t the grand idea of this essay, but it is still an important fact to nail down. I have no clue what to do with my life. Should I keep writing? Should I get my law degree? Should I be a doctor? Should I work with the government?

I have no clue. However, I know for certain I don’t want to be a cop.

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Chris Hues is a human & writer from Boston, Ma & Associate Editor of bostonhassle.com. //// They can be reached at chris@bostonhassle.com or @crsjh_ via instagram & twitter.

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