Art is always political

From The Bookseller:

On Tuesday, Arts Council of England (ACE) released a statement about the organisation’s funding policy. You have all probably read it by now. The statement warned creatives and organisations against “reputational risk” which ACE defined as any “activity that might be considered overtly political and activist and goes beyond your company’s core purpose and partnerships with organisations that might be perceived as being in conflict with the purposes of public funding of culture”. This was not limited to activities directly funded by ACE.

Is any form of art unpolitical? I write from several places of marginality. Author Bell Hooks calls this marginality a place of resistance. I too see this place of otherness not as a place of deprivation but as a place of opportunity and possibility. Anything and everything I write is political. It has to be. My lived experience, much like any other marginalised writer, is a space of refusal to accept what is laid out for us, the boundaries that are set around our existence, the spaces we are not allowed to inhabit. We learn to oppose these norms that limit our existence, and opposition becomes a necessity, not a choice. Writing is a way of writing ourselves into the mainstream, telling stories that are not necessarily heard, challenging the colonisers and oppressors, and imagining a radical new world where these boundaries and hierarchies do not exist anymore. Writing is a way of finding a counter-language, that hooks calls a “space of refusal” where we say no to the language of the colonisers and oppressors and find a language to name the repression. Once we silence these counter-narratives then we silence the language of resistance.

While I am writing this ACE has released an update, a sort of pushed-into-a-corner, we-are-not-really-bad but only-thinking-of-your-own-good statement; a faux-benevolent backtracking. It mentions “freedom of expression” and “artistic freedom” a few times to allay concerns and outrage expressed widely by artists on social media and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it refers once again to reputational risk, to polarisation and puts the onus on the organisations to make sure “that if they, or people associated with them, are planning activity that might be viewed as controversial, they have thought through, and so far as possible mitigated, the risk to themselves and crucially to their staff and to the communities they serve”.

There are larger questions at stake here as to what the public funds are for if not to fund art that resists the artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems

Perhaps the timing is merely a coincidence as we are witnessing a artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems among artists against the genocide happening in Palestine. If this is silencing and censorship, then of course it isn’t anything new, but to couch it within a concern for “reputational risk” seems disingenuous. There are larger questions at stake here as to what the public funds are for if not to fund art that resists the artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems. If not this, then culture can never evolve beyond the limits of our current imaginations. Preventing creatives from challenging dominant norms, questioning, speaking their truth will only result in a monolith ossified culture, stagnant and festering with dissent and paralysed with fear.

Marginalised writers have lived with these fears for so long. Reputational risk is not something to be taken lightly. For anyone who is an “other” it is an anxiety that lies heavy on their shoulders, something that lurks silently at all times intent on pushing them away further into the margins. The warning against “reputational risk” feels like bullying, and intimidation. And the whole purpose of bullying is to create self-doubt, uncertainty and unease. As we face even more cuts to arts funding and public funding becomes even more scarce, creating a culture of fear is counter-productive to encouraging and supporting innovative art. The ACE stance is silencing of those who have been marginalised, and those who speak up against oppressive forces, telling artists to stay within their boxes, quiet, unchallenging, unresistant, fearful of the repercussions. When people are silenced, it creates hopelessness and despair.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

  1. PG doesn’t agree with more than a bit of the OP. Don’t ask him to identify the bit.
  2. “[fill in the blank] is political!’ is a now ancient technique used by all sorts of people, right, left and center, to shut down argument.
  3. Marginalised, silencing, bullying, intimidation, self-doubt, uncertainty, unease, paralysed with fear, speaking their truth, challenging dominant norms, oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems are in the eye of the beholder. If these conditions are so widespread, horrible and heavy, why doesn’t everyone notice them?
  4. PG’s favorite horror was “faux-benevolent.” Heaven forfend!
  5. “What the public funds are for if not to fund art that resists the artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems.”
    • Does anybody think to ask the public how their taxes should be used? Whether they do or don’t want to fund the creation of things they find abhorrent.”
  6. “outrage expressed widely by artists on social media and elsewhere.” Oooh! Outrage! On Social Media! Who would have imagined there was outrage of any sort on social media? How could we possibly miss outraged artists on social media amid so much reasoned, quiet, calm, and polite conversation with never a hint of anger everywhere we look on social media?
  7. And finally, genocide, the all-purpose horror, not to be missed in any tirade.

8 thoughts on “Art is always political”

  1. I do wish these identifying-as-marginalized writers would write stories about all those divisions and hierarchies not existing, but they don’t, so I nope out of the books generally as soon as I realize what kind of book it is.

    I’m not white. I’m not marginalized. I’m also just not interested.

  2. Okay, it has to be said, if everything is political then nothing is political. Or, if everyone is special then no one is special.

    I’ll unpack that for the pedantic.

    Everything can be made political but in doing so it leaves the topic as one of many that then has to be prioritized as important or not important.

    People who way they’re apolitical are just saying that the importance of discussing said subject is beyond their willingness to expend the time, energy and any other resources to argue.

    So, once one say everything is political then they’re playing the game of consuming peoples resources.

  3. I think it’s the general consensus of taxpayers that we really don’t care whether or not someone is creating ‘edgy art that pushes against boundaries’.
    What I DO care about it being told I have to fund it with my taxes.

    • This smacks very much of the tax-protestor-against-Vietnam cases who objected to their tax money being used to buy napalm.† It’s not that the concern is invalid, by any means; it is that “sometimes paying via taxes, or their private-actor equivalents, for something one would rather not support” is the price of civilization. (And for you cryptolibertarians who believe in starving government to death, stop and consider the corresponding issue of, say, supporting tobacco heirs through buying a box of macaroni and cheese; or of buying a gallon of gas and supporting NPR!)

      Don’t blame it on tax expenditures. Blame it on the citizenry that elected people who choose to authorize those tax expenditures… after evaluating the other tradeoffs, including the expenditures on (or refusals to tax, such as “tax-incentive districts”) things of which you do approve but that others might not. And that goes for “pure-marketplace” decisions, too, like the historical-since-the-1980s tenth of a cent per gallon or so of your gas expenditures that Exxon has, umm, siphoned off for NPR and PBS and other arts programs. Not to mention other "side effects".

      † I’d rather never have another dime go to an aircraft carrier or ballistic-missile submarine, but that’s at least as much interservice rivalry as anything else.

      • I think that most people in my orbit don’t want to starve the government. We just want it to stop being obese and slim down to fit into the pants that were tailored for it a long time ago. For the US Federal government, funding the arts (political or not) is way over the belt line.

        Other governments may not have the limit – but, in my opinion, the art that they fund should be acceptable to at least a majority of those that they govern, through their representatives. Not by an “Arts Council” formed, usually, by bureaucrats without even consulting any elected official.

        As for Exxon – well, I don’t agree with their funding of NPR. But, if I were extremely incensed by it, I have the untrammeled ability to purchase some shares in the business, show up in person at the next stockholder’s meeting, and attempt to push through a motion to stop it. Majority rules again, though – if those holding other shares don’t agree with me – well, that’s the way it is.

        • I’ve always wondered why the arts need funding. If nobody buys the stuff produced by someone calling themselves “creative,” then maybe it sucks,

        • The pants that were tailored for the government a long time ago were approximately six weeks away from any other nation’s pants. Further, they were “tailored” by individuals whose tailoring skills did not exceed those of the average PFC in the field — capable of repair to previously-existing garments, and perhaps a few other modifications that made them just fine for in the field but very, very likely to fall apart (and fail inspection) back at the base.

          The biggest hint that the Founders expected the government to change, constantly, is that they amended the Constitution within four years of its effective date, and again in another four years, and again in another decade — and many of the Founders were involved in that amendment process and didn’t write well under even the standard of the day (when Capitalization and punctuation; among other things we take for granted — were neither so well understood nor so standardized, this being the one thing Mrs Grundy should have engaged in: Time travel to 1785 or so). At that point, they started dropping like flies, some on the same day, and complacency set in.

          I find also find it more than somewhat amusing (I have a sick sense of humor) that slavish worship of the hardest of hard-core original-public-meaning originalism just validates critical race theory. But that’s rather far afield from this part of the comment thread, and the OP…

  4. Of course it’s political.

    [N]o book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

    George Orwell, “Why I Write”

    The problem that the Arts Council and the OP neglected is that “political” overlaps with, but is not the same as, either “partisan” or “tribal.” “Identity politics” is nearly an oxymoron…

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