Do Artists and Designers Have an Obligation To Be Political?
During the chaos of the past year, the most helpful discovery I made was “Up First,” an NPR podcast that condenses the day’s news into 15 minutes or less. It’s a godsend for anyone who feels fed up with the 24-hour news cycle, and with the constant commentary that accompanies it. By reducing my intake to a few minutes of the most important news, my day is less likely to involve drowning in the clickbait-and-thinkpiece maelstrom that’s become the topography of the Internet. Though this eliminates some distraction, I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by the current volume of political and social strife, a sentiment I know I’m not alone in having.
Amidst increasingly troubling news, I noticed that more artists, whose feeds usually focused on aesthetics, were using their platforms to speak out. I felt a sense of solidarity knowing I was in the company of creatives who understood the impact their voices could have, but it also led me to a larger question:
We can’t all be Ai Weiwei or Swoon, but I believe artists should understand where their work stands in relation to the contemporary political and social environment. Everything that we, as culture producers, create is cultural data that others consume. Regardless of a maker’s intentions, art is political once it is available to any audience. Even something as seemingly neutral as a chair has political implications.
In our capitalist, consumer-driven economy, the prospect of saying something divisive is daunting to artists whose livelihoods depend on a loyal following. We’ve been fooled into thinking that artists are beholden to their audiences, but the opposite should be true. Art is disruption. Art is seeing opportunities to intervene in the surrounding world and daring to imagine it differently, rather than accepting it as it is. Good art pushes the boundaries of public opinion, leading it to greater knowledge and greater empathy. Artists have that power; we should own it.
In times of moral conflict, silence is just as loud a response as speaking up. Inaction suggests that a maker has enough privilege to ignore injustices occurring right under their nose. For example, many of those artists who began speaking out on social media were inundated with comments expressing disappointment that an artist-maker would dare to express an opinion about anything outside their work (the audacity!). As unfair as these reactions are, it’s also fair to point out that based on previous content, perhaps the audience didn’t have any way of knowing that particular artist’s views.
I’m not advocating for every artist to create material solely about current events. Frankly, that’d be exhausting. It’s also impossible to entirely control a viewer’s reaction to artwork. I do think there are measures that can allow an artist to more effectively navigate the space between the studio and their audience.
1. Learn to see what’s been made invisible to you.
Larger systems of oppression rely on the complicity of those with power. It means that majority groups aren’t taught to see the ways they are overprivileged and ways marginalized groups are underprivileged. For instance, reading this article is indicative of several privileges that are hard to see: literacy, access to the Internet, time to read it, etc. Historically, minority and disempowered groups have had to work much harder to make privileged parties see inequity (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement, any suffrage movement, Black Lives Matter). When minority groups are expected to fight to convince even their allies to believe them, activism becomes emotionally draining. Ideally, an ally will be proactive and find ways to do their own research without creating more labor for the group they’d like to help. It’s an uncomfortable experience to learn that you’re part of the problem, but it’s not nearly the same discomfort someone feels on the other end of the problem. Unlearning privilege as the default is difficult and ongoing, but it’s necessary work if one expects to make real change.
2. Know when to listen, know when to speak, know when to amplify.
Once an ally has gained some understanding of an issue, it’s time to put that knowledge to use. When you see opportunities to stand up, especially when you’re speaking to people with similar privileges, make the effort to share what you’ve learned. So often, minority parties are expected to jump into the fray, even when there’s a large power disparity. Minority parties should have the choice to walk away from these exchanges, since it’s already hard enough living with oppression on a daily basis. On the other hand, it’s important to distinguish between times to stand up, and times to support. If you’d like to use your work to speak about specific issues, make sure you include the voices of people who are directly affected by the issue (and compensate them for their labor). If there’s already work that speaks to that experience, maybe it’s time to step back and use whatever platforms you have to amplify those voices. It’s a fine line to tread, but speaking up is not the same as speaking over. Know the difference. Craig Ferguson’s advice is helpful here: “three questions to ask yourself before you speak: does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me now?”
3. Monitor your intake to improve your output.
The creative process should consider if the work (output) challenges the status quo or reinforces it. Part of that process is being aware of what sort of cultural data you yourself consume. As Nora Ephron so aptly phrased it in her magnum opus You’ve Got Mail, “you are what you read.” What are you reading, listening to, seeing, or experiencing? What aren’t you? Who do you spend time with? All these become the ingredients for your work. Like any good cook, artists should ensure that they are seeking the best ingredients they can to craft the best meal. Your output might not directly tackle an issue, but one way you can help is to be cognizant of what your work is doing to be inclusive, how and where your materials are sourced, ensuring your work is not appropriative, and compensate labor fairly.
It’s guaranteed that as makers, really as people, we’ll do or say the wrong thing. However, the fear of making a mistake shouldn’t keep us from trying. It’s a far worse mistake to be passive when times call for action. Artists often become the loudest and defining voices of their generation. It’s our duty to know the nature of the change we catalyze, and in so knowing, speak up!