If society has an imagination to express its desires and fears, it is activated through art. If society is to experiment with change, with new forms, with its power structures, with ways of seeing and with language itself, it must be through art. If social change is the agenda, then art must make up a large part of the toolkit.
Everyone knows that art is compelling, attractive, community-building, inspirational in dark times, and so on, and that it is therefore a major social force. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. While political content in art is one thing, the political situation of the work’s making is just as essential. The artist is a worker, and the parameters of her workplace contain the more fundamental political questions. I would suggest that it’s really outside the artwork that one must look for an artist’s politics.
Artists must organize: sometimes to lobby for funding, or to take on projects. We often must make our own opportunities and workplaces, cultivate our own audiences. This is our real political work, apart from whatever politics we profess – our roles in creating and maintaining these institutions, venues and platforms for our work. I believe it is most of all at the grassroots – performance series, film co-ops, alternative galleries, indie record labels, and so on – where artists’ politics are practiced and measured.
Artists must have patrons. A politically aware artist asks herself: For whom do we make art? How many of our artists serve the public good, how many serve various elites, and how many have been hired away by commercial interests and are making work that primarily serves capitalism itself? Many are employed or financed by the state, which gets more complicated and ambiguous. Still others are employed directly by their audiences, which has its own limitations. We see not only varied forms and content in these milieus, but also different levels of potential for social change. Most artists find themselves navigating some combination of these patronage mazes during their careers, and how any artist maintains a political compass in the many streams of cultural work becomes a central challenge.
Complicating things further, our culture is supported by a partly invisible and pervasive network – beyond the foundations, galleries, museums, broadcasters and collectors. Artists depend on gift economies and barter; our parents, children and spouses; service jobs; bars and nightclubs; festivals; universities and schools; and various sources of revenue to make ends meet, to get our work made and presented. Changes to the minimum wage, interest rates, immigration policy and employment affect the arts perhaps as much as a new granting program or endowment.
Considering further, it is ultimately impossible to separate our cultural conditions from our political conditions. To contribute one’s creative voice to the enduring song of humanity is the prerogative and right of every person. If many of us are prevented from exercising that right, from feeling a sense of belonging to our culture, it is the result of various social injustices. The elitist, racist, sexist, regressive and anti-democratic forces that create this impoverished condition must be rooted out. All of which, apart from leaving us myriad questions to bear in mind while reading this CD focus on the arts, leaves us also to hope for a more democratic, participatory and communal culture, at the very same time that we wish for these qualities in a more just society.
This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Artists & Politics).