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Art and Politics

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This post is laden with questions and not nearly enough answers. Please send in your answers if any of them resonate with you. 

The last few weeks have been eventful politically; this statement probably applies wherever you are in the world. Japan witnessed the assassination of a former prime minister in an uncharacteristically violent attack, the British prime minister resigned (or weirdly, promised to resign) amidst mounting pressure in form of record levels of resignations from his own government, and the US supreme court overturned a long-standing policy governing one of the most polarising issues in the country. From east to west, and in reverse chronological order, these are some of the issues that have circulated the news waves and filled our social media feeds. 

You may be wondering, why all this talk of politics on a blog focused on art and creativity? Well, this post is about art and artists. Specifically, it's about the intersection of art and politics, because through all the political chatter, the one group that is often maligned for expressing their views is the creative bunch. Well, that's not true, strictly speaking; athletes (and members of some public-facing, non-9-to-5 vocations) face a similar treatment to artists in this regard. Since I belong to the former group and know little about the latter, and considering the aforementioned point that this is a creative blog, much of this discourse will remain in the creative realm.

There's a school of thought, an idea that a significant portion of the populace hold, that artists should not express their opinions or air their views on political issues. ‘Don't get political’, ‘keep politics out of this’, ‘let us enjoy this in peace’, some people demand. It's often viewed as controversial when artists 'get political', and speaking from experience, I'm all too familiar with the feeling of having to brace oneself for potential backlash before treading political waters in artworks. This begs the question: should musicians, novelists, sculptors and the likes, keep politics out of their work?

I've spent some time mauling this over and while I'm not sure there's a definite answer, I'd like to examine both sides of the argument. Now's a good time to reiterate my earlier call for answers, please share your views and let's start a conversation. But back to the question…

On one hand, I empathise with those that call for artists to leave politics out of their art. For many, art provides escapism and entertainment. Life is hard, and people retreat to music, movies, and books to seek solace from their everyday struggles. We read novels, listen to music, and watch movies to be temporarily transported to another plane, a plane where reality is suspended, where the laws of physics may not apply, and where we get to be embroiled in the lives of other (often made-up) people. Through this lens, the last thing we need is to be confronted with, and ambushed by the very political nightmares that plague us and fuel the struggles we so desperately need to escape from. 

On the other hand, however, art mirrors life; there's a saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and there's another, that life imitates art. Some of the creative works we've come to know and love, even the ones so fictional and other-worldly – think To Kill A Mockingbird, Murder On The Orient Express, and Jaws, to name a few – are inspired by real-world events. If we acknowledge that life drives, influences, and shapes art, and that artists are human beings with lived experiences, then there's hardly a better medium to spark conversations and fuel social movements. Art, then, is the quintessential vessel for social change. 

Furthermore, artists are everyday people (at least the ones I know are). When people insist that artists should stay out of politics, we have to wonder why the same demand isn't levied against other working members of the public. What is it about artists that precludes this group from airing their views? Is it because artists have platforms? This may make sense since popular athletes are also subjected to the same demands. Sports, like art, also happens to provide escapism and entertainment, so this perhaps lends credence to the idea that a person whose job or duty it is to entertain shouldn't sully the alternate reality with real-world struggles. 

Yet, this explanation seems unsatisfactory. There's no shortage of bankers, plumbers and teachers who have platforms too, and the majority of the world's artists and athletes don't have platforms that would make a dent in the ether. Are these bankers and plumbers expected to stay out of politics too? It is curious that those who demand political silence of artists and athletes don't seem to demand such from the rest of the populace, so one has to wonder what it is about art as a profession that makes people insist on this.

Some of the protests we’ve seen in the last few years, and the conversations that have co-travelled with them, suggest that there’s something about politics that makes it such a taboo subject to discuss not only in art contexts but also in broader social (familial, work, cordial) contexts. But why is this the case? 

This question is so loaded that I can't even begin to answer it in any satisfactory manner given the time and space constraints that a blog post enforces. What I'd like to do instead, is to examine our distaste for political discourse, and situate it in the context of art and creativity. To begin, it is worth acknowledging that there are people that are happy to discuss politics, and conversely, there are people that aren't. The latter group is germane to this post, since (in my experience) the former are hardly ever the ones to demand political silence from artists. For this group – the politically squeamish – I'd like to posit that there are two reasons why an individual might abstain from engaging with politics; either the individual benefits from the political status quo, or the individual is oblivious to the impact of political decrees on their day to day life.

The first reason is obvious; if things suit me just fine as they are, why should I care about political actions that seek to change, and potentially take away my advantage? I pose this as a rhetorical question to highlight the prevailing vantage point for this group, but I'd venture an answer nonetheless, that the reason to care, and to act, is that we should all strive to make the world better for everyone. Even if I benefit from a system, as long as there are people in our midst that the system is failing, then we're all failing as a society. Of course, it takes empathy, awareness, and selflessness to see reason with this argument, which may explain why the people that seek to banish political talk from the arts are often the ones that benefit from the status quo and would rather not rock the boat.

This isn't always the case, however, which brings us to the other reason; a certain oblivion, sometimes manifesting as blissful ignorance, other times presenting as painful self-sabotage through inaction. I say 'ignorance' not in the demeaning or deprecating sense of the word, but rather in a literal sense – a state where an individual is just unaware of how politics affects their daily life. 

And politics does rule our daily lives, there’s no question about it. The policies enacted at every level of government, from the grassroots to any nation's capital, influence the rights we have to live, love, work, travel, and just be. If you're reading this and can't think of any instance where a government policy has influenced your life in any of the above ways, then count yourself fortunate, because you have (some) privilege in this regard. But there's more. There are the income tax policies that directly impact the size of your disposable income, there are the corporate and business tax policies that create a not-so-invisible hand in the market thus limiting the purchasing power of what's left of your income after income taxes are deducted, and there's everything in-between. Is it any surprise that as of this writing, ten (10) candidates have thrown their hats in the ring to be the next British prime minister, and every single one of them has singled out the one, same talking point in their governing agenda – cutting taxes for corporations? It’s almost as if they’re all using this to overtly signal to their party's decision-makers that they’re willing to fall in line on the one thing they all care about. Maybe I’m wrong. 

If we acknowledge that there's no escaping the impact of politics in our daily lives, it makes this question all the more relevant, and we have to wonder why we're so reluctant to discuss politics openly. We seem to be increasingly more polarised as a society, such that almost any issue is capable of dividing the population into nearly equal camps. Sometimes even families can't always agree on issues, so that politics has been added to the list of taboo topics in family gatherings, alongside sex, money and religious differences. It begs the question then, is this where it all begins? Is it possible that this polarisation at the family level, the micro-unit of society, contributes to the larger societal distaste for political conversations in art? 

I'm not so sure there's a clear-cut answer here. We may be becoming a more polarised society, but even long before social media facilitated self-selecting information sources, there was no shortage of public outcry to leave politics out of art. Way back in the 60s, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield suffered career setbacks because they dared to use their musical platforms to campaign for social change. Documentaries and exposés reveal how these artists were warned against the potential blowbacks; sure enough, their careers suffered for a time. Fast forward several decades and not much has changed, it seems. Taylor Swift's 2020 documentary revealed similar conversations where her parents and management team cautioned against weighing in on the presidential elections. We know what happened after she spoke up, and the reactions to all those artists (and athletes) who raised their fists and took the knee during the global protests of 2020 are all too fresh in our memories.

Art is powerful. It keeps our lives full, it makes society better, and it allows us to temporarily escape. Politics governs our lives, policies are a direct manifestation of what's in our hearts, and a reflection of how well the least amongst us fare. So, art is crucial to life, and politics reflects life, which in turn influences and shapes art. Put together, it poses the difficult issue of figuring out the most appropriate relationship between the two. When should we separate art and politics so that we can escape the harsh realities of life? And when should we infuse art with politics to drive social change? These are my parting questions to you. 

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