Artists: Raise Your Weapons
[Among other places, this essay appeared in Common Dreams: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2009/12/10/artists-raise-your-weapons]
In this time of escalating exploitation, poverty, imperialist wars, torture and ecocide, we don’t need a piece of art that consists of a mattress dripping orange paint, cleverly titled “Tangerine Dream.” In this time, as countless multitudes suffer and die for the profits and luxuries of a few, as species go extinct at a rate faster than we can keep track of, we don’t need an orchestra composed of iPhones. In this time, when the future of all life on Earth is at stake, spare us the constant barrage of narcissistic tweets juxtaposing celeb gossip with quirky food choices.
If we lived in a time of peace and harmony, then creating pretty, escapist, seratonin-boosting hits of mild amusement wouldn’t be a crime (except perhaps against one’s Muse). If all was well, such art might enhance our happy existence, like whipped cream on a chocolate latte. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure, or decorative art.
But in times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.
The foundation of any culture is its underlying economic system. Today, art is bullied to conform to the demands of industrial capitalism, to reflect and reinforce the interests of those in power. This system-serving art is relentlessly bland. It is viciously soothing, crushingly safe. It seduces us to desire, buy, use, consume. It entertains us and makes us giggle with faux joy as it slowly sucks our brains out through our eye sockets.
The system exerts tremendous pressure to create art that is not only apolitical but anti-political. When the dominant culture spots political art, it sticks its fingers in its ears and sings, “La la la!” It refuses to review it in the New York Times or award it an NEA grant. Political art is vigorously snubbed, ignored, condemned to obscurity, erased. If it’s too powerful to make disappear, then it is scorned, accused of being depressing, doom-and-gloom, preachy, impolite, and by the way, your drawing style sucks. Also by the way, you can’t make a living if your work’s not vacuous, cynical and therefore commercially viable, so go starve under a bridge with your precious principles.
We’re taught that it’s rude to be judgmental, that to assert a point of view violates the pure, transcendent and neutral spirit of art. This is mind-fucking bullshit designed to weaken and depoliticize us. In these times, there is no such thing as neutrality — not taking a stand means supporting and assisting exploiters and murderers.
Let us not be the system’s tools or fools. Artists are not cowards and weaklings — we’re tough. We take sides. We fight back.
Artists and writers have a proud tradition of being at the forefront of resistance, of stirring emotions and inspiring action. Today we must create an onslaught of judgmental, opinionated, brash and partisan work in the tradition of anti-Nazi artists John Heartfield and George Grosz, of radical muralist Diego Rivera, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, feminist artists the Guerrilla Girls, novelists like Maxim Gorky and Taslima Nasrin, poets like Nazim Hikmet and Kazi Nazrul Islam, musicians like The Coup and the Dead Kennedys.
The world cries out for meaningful, combative, political art. It is our duty and responsibility to create a fierce, unyielding, aggressive culture of resistance. We must create art that exposes and denounces evil, that strengthens activists and revolutionaries, celebrates and contributes to the coming liberation of this planet from corporate industrial military omnicidal madness.
Pick up your weapon, artist.