An elaboration or continuation of thoughts posted here about a year back which I presented at the New School (sometimes it takes a year to find the time. Sometimes it takes a panel invite 😉
On reclaiming the word “Art”
I believe “art” is the term crafted under capitalism in order to semi-assign value to some art (deemed fine art) and problematize othered art (as low art or ethnic art or craft) in order to fraction art’s potential for true transformation. Art’s transformational potential is actually what is considered very dangerous to socio-economic stratifications that capitalism is dependent on.
First, what is Art?
To me art is the process of engaging what we know to be the expressive arts to self-heal, and at its most powerful, to skillfully apply expressive arts to heal in community and vision out of oppression. To me it has nothing to do with anything else it is typically associated with. This is my quandary, because as creative workers we are bound to play to the system in which we are nurtured- however oppressive. A system that doesn’t pay us. If that isn’t oppression…
(I may be ambivalent about the word “art,” but I’m passionate about seers and witches, philosophers and medicine womxn.)
Art and Labor
As we operate within the hegemonic nature of capitalism, we must apply the labels given to eventually be able to offer alternatives. We must work within the system because we are of this system before we can realize how to subvert this system. In this system, to believe that the worker is separate from the artist is to feed into the very supremacist underpinnings of capitalist hierarchy that privileges even as it undermines the power of people who vision. We must be in solidarity with workers.
By claiming the economic pittance we are allotted as artists we are being honest with our value and therefore the devaluing of our work within this system. We are laborers by the very nature that we spend time to make art. We labor over our art. Every accountable hour we labor over we can and must demand payment for. This is being honest with ourselves. We will never be compensated if we do not align as and with workers. The emotional creative labor of our dreaming brains – that will likely never be compensated, but here is where we can claim that that kind of labor is priceless. Though we know that art is not pure labor (but is it not?). Art is dreaming and responsive thoughtfulness and planning. It is only because it is devalued as intangible that we must start with something concrete and undeniable: the time we physically labor.
There is a wedge capitalism plays up to disrupt the natural solidarity of the worker with the artist. It’s that concept of value. How insidious, no? Art is made to appear as a luxury a non-essential and artists therefore frivolous – even as most are not monetarily compensated – art is the first to be removed from public school education so children don’t get a working knowledge of the release that the expressive arts can provide and these children grow into obedient hard-working adults with little tools to vision out with. That’s perhaps the greatest tragedy. When one is kept from creating and celebrating one’s own culture by the devaluing of art. And because art is devalued we cannot see how our communities are actively being broken down and impoverished.
The ennui of privilege
Let’s be clear: those artists who work primarily off their art most likely are financially independent before they even came to call themselves artists (or rely on an invisible mesh of privileges they won’t even be able to acknowledge without being woken to them). Most of the rest of us (who come with our own set of privileges – where else in the world can we even be having this conversation) must supplement our income with odd jobs. There is already a smudging of critical detail here that capitalism banks on even as it would have us all call ourselves artists. Socioeconomics is nothing to smudge over.
Race isn’t either. Artists of color who are not vying for art school credentials often come to the work at creative culture workers. The art reflects and buttresses community building. The work is often too rough or too raw for art galleries and therefore not acceptable as art. The myth of meritocracy and the great art hero or superstar is at work here too. To be in pristine galleries artists are playing to a very different crowd.
Capitalism keeps art blasé as evinced by the fact that most art coming out is not challenging the system – is kept in communities (raw and unpackaged and therefore unappealing ie non-threatening to the establishment) or in galleries (so pristine it is sterile and congratulating the status quo). But once in a while art bursts out of the confines. And this art is often defiantly of community and “has its shit together.” this is when we witness a great deal of energy (really, pushback that may seem celebratory) – smokescreens, flashy deals, and attached strings to render the artist a puppet after all. When the artist is seduced away from their community… they’re done.
Art with teeth is only made when the artist refuses to bow. But we still must make a living, no? Therefore, seeing ourselves as the workers that we are is crucial. Let’s not think ourselves above because we’re feeding into just those myths keeping us groveling and ultimately toothless. We must see the visionaries in the labor movement as made of the same stardust as ourselves.
The passion of practice
(Even calling oneself an artist can be harrowing when your roots are in community – negotiating the constant degradation of humanity and the devaluing of your work as merely decorative and therefore nonessential, knowing the essential and transformative potential of art, and reworking the distrust of the luxury and decadence associated with the art world by communities dismissed but actively appropriated for cultural capital)
Those of us who call ourselves artists (for lack of a better word) and choose to stay on our path, we are simply asking questions and visioning out of what we feel contained by. Visioning into possibilities for alternate ways to be with dignity.
We may start off asking, then finally know, there must other ways to be. This is a first step towards liberation.
We then devote time to working towards finding those other ways. Whether successfully or not, it is that we can be moved to that matters most.
Art with Teeth
Artists cannot be ambivalent. there is no option but to fully engage in art making. That’s the practice of making art with teeth. it is a difficult commitment because one faces deepest fears and feels the aloneness of being more and more keenly. art-making is simply the visioning it requires to stay on one’s path.
Ultimately, I’m a realist. I know artists need a bit of security in the form of compensation so they can make the art that becomes transformative. I also know most people who call themselves artists will not make art with teeth. I’m fighting for compensation for all artists, but especially for those who fight with teeth.
SUPPORT (added 12/11/2017)
Work, Protest, and Identity in Twentieth-century Latin America By Vincent C. Peloso