Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Activism in the Arts: More Funny Business

Artists: Raise Your Weapons December 9th, 2009

In this time of escalating exploitation, poverty, imperialist wars, torture and ecocide, we don’t need a piece of art that consists of a mattress dripping orange paint, cleverly titled “Tangerine Dream.” In this time, as countless multitudes suffer and die for the profits and luxuries of a few, as species go extinct at a rate faster than we can keep track of, we don’t need an orchestra composed of iPhones. In this time, when the future of all life on Earth is at stake, spare us the constant barrage of narcissistic tweets juxtaposing celeb gossip with quirky food choices.
If we lived in a time of peace and harmony, then creating pretty, escapist, seratonin-boosting hits of mild amusement wouldn’t be a crime (except perhaps against one’s Muse). If all was well, such art might enhance our happy existence, like whipped cream on a chocolate latte. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure, or decorative art.
But in times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.
The foundation of any culture is its underlying economic system. Today, art is bullied to conform to the demands of industrial capitalism, to reflect and reinforce the interests of those in power. This system-serving art is relentlessly bland. It is viciously soothing, crushingly safe. It seduces us to desire, buy, use, consume. It entertains us and makes us giggle with faux joy as it slowly sucks our brains out through our eye sockets.
The system exerts tremendous pressure to create art that is not only apolitical but anti-political. When the dominant culture spots political art, it sticks its fingers in its ears and sings, “La la la!” It refuses to review it in the New York Times or award it an NEA grant. Political art is vigorously snubbed, ignored, condemned to obscurity, erased. If it’s too powerful to make disappear, then it is scorned, accused of being depressing, doom-and-gloom, preachy, impolite, and by the way, your drawing style sucks. Also by the way, you can’t make a living if your work’s not vacuous, cynical and therefore commercially viable, so go starve under a bridge with your precious principles.
We’re taught that it’s rude to be judgmental, that to assert a point of view violates the pure, transcendent and neutral spirit of art. This is mind-fucking bullshit designed to weaken and depoliticize us. In these times, there is no such thing as neutrality — not taking a stand means supporting and assisting exploiters and murderers.
Let us not be the system’s tools or fools. Artists are not cowards and weaklings — we’re tough. We take sides. We fight back.
Artists and writers have a proud tradition of being at the forefront of resistance, of stirring emotions and inspiring action. Today we must create an onslaught of judgmental, opinionated, brash and partisan work in the tradition of anti-Nazi artists John Heartfield and George Grosz, of radical muralist Diego Rivera, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, feminist artists the Guerrilla Girls, novelists like Maxim Gorky and Taslima Nasrin, poets like Nazim Hikmet and Kazi Nazrul Islam, musicians like The Coup and the Dead Kennedys.
The world cries out for meaningful, combative, political art. It is our duty and responsibility to create a fierce, unyielding, aggressive culture of resistance. We must create art that exposes and denounces evil, that strengthens activists and revolutionaries, celebrates and contributes to the coming liberation of this planet from corporate industrial military omnicidal madness.
Pick up your weapon, artist.

Part I

A truly inspirational piece reposted in full by permission from the cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, from her Minimum Security blog. Also it makes for a good follow-up to yesterday's post, and an excellent introduction to the ramble after the fold...

This follows from another typical sound + fury exchange that erupted over at the Daily Cartoonist, where an epic comment thread de-evolved out of control and off-topic. Initially it was regarding an upcoming appearance at Macworld by webcomic creator Scott Kurtz, which in turn attracted the criticism of Ted Rall, and the usual tiresome and pointless flame-war erupted between aggrandizing personalities and inflated opinions over the non-issue of web-versus-print debate: but one of the more interesting meta-threads that briefly surfaced was over the relative merits and shortcomings of populist entertainment (which would be most of the innocuous pap published by mainstream media) compared to material that contains social commentary (to whit: editorial cartooning). Squaring off in relevance were the token examples of webcomics devoted to gamer culture versus political cartoons, but there is another obvious parallel that I've ranted on here before: the "pretty picture" syndrome that influences many schools of thought (or lack thereof) in the world of Fine Art, and also education.

It was refreshing to see a flag raised up in defense of activism, and voicing the uncomfortable observation that the entertainment industry largely serves to distract the populace from paying any attention to what's really going on behind the scenes. I don't mean this in any tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist way, but there certainly is a decided advantage to keeping the masses placated with ultimately pointless diversions. For example, I've cherry-picked some key comments from the above-mentioned thread:
"I draw comics to make people laugh. You will never convince me that is some how less important than political commentary." - Mike Krahulik

"Then the argument apparently turned to social relevance. The true measure of success is judged by whether or not your comic makes a difference. This is a bogus argument as you are debating apples and oranges. By this argument the vast majority of web AND print cartoonist fall short. I really can’t think of the last sweeping cultural change or public opinion paradigm shift caused by Garfield, Zits, or the majority of editorial cartoons. Yes, some editorial cartoons have made the nation think and some web comics have called upon the masses to help others. But the primary purpose of most comic strips (web or print) is to make people laugh and take a break from all of the god-awful news they are reading in the newspaper or on the web." - Benjamin McCormick

"I think all comics are political. Whether they’re abhorrent or not is going to depend on your views. Those that don’t seem political are usually just those that support the political status quo. Now I can get behind the status quo of a comic about a round-headed kid who loves his dog, but not so much Andy Capp beating up his wife." - Eric Millikin

"All work of fiction is a comment on something, whether or not you care about that comment does not make that less important to the audience that is receptive. If art is important the audience will decide it. The artist declaring their work more important than others is a desperate artist. If political cartoons are an important vehicle for social change they will thrive." - Jim Thomas

"I believe that we all want to entertain our readers, and that whether we realize it or not, or intend to or not, we’re all also contributing to shaping the culture in ideological ways. Sometimes these ways are clear and direct, other times they’re more complex and subtle. But we’re all doing it." - Stephanie McMillan

"... the central issue is not whether art is overtly political or not, because it’s all inherently political anyway — what does matter is what the artwork is promoting and what it stands for... Art that expresses ideas against the status quo *appear* more political because they are inherently oppositional, they’re critiques. In art that reinforces the status quo, the politics are invisible unless you’re looking at it from the point of view of opposition." - Stephanie McMillan

"... you make such a simplistic value judgment. You’re basically saying that any form of art that self-identifies as political is inherently of greater value... You refer to other cartoonists as engaging in abhorrent objectionable behavior by not making agitprop... There’s no antagonism between art and politics, except what you create." - Zach Weiner
Pretty passionate opinions, and definitely some ruffled feathers: "overbearingly preening self-importance... holier-than-thou attitude... propaganda...elitist art-condescension... etc. etc." comments like these mean that buttons were pushed, and that in and of itself might achieve some measure of insight - maybe not in the best, most attractive or even right way, but to be sure, an effect is made. And that's a point.

Part II

"So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter." - Gordon W. Allport

Now all of Part 1 dovetails quite nicely with still another another recently contentious issue - this time initially centered around the editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore receiving death threats over one of his pieces. The work poked a hornet nest of a reaction, as evidenced by the immediate division of opinion on a corresponding comment thread again at the Daily Cartoonist. In response to a particularly reactive comment, this perspective was added:
"Those people SHOULD be ridiculed. They should be made to cry. Maybe then they’ll start questioning their own stupid excuses for beliefs, pick up a book or a newspaper, and learn something. Maybe." - Ted Rall

"How many times have you been called a socialist/communist/anti-american? Did it make you question your “own stupid excuses for beliefs?”
I don’t think it’s in human nature to be ridiculed and have a introspective moment. More times than not (especially in politics/religion) being ridiculed only throws up defenses and builds barriers to any meaningful dialog that might actually change someone’s perspectives (including your own).
I was once a rabid right-wing conservative. I’ve moved to the center only because of discussions, reading, and asking questions. I’m pretty sure I would not have moved so far left had someone been making fun of me. I would have only found more arguments to bolster my position and fired back.
So – to everyone on this thread – if you really want change someone’s mind, stop telling them what an ignoramus they are, ask meaningful questions about the other’s views, learn why they think a certain way, ask more questions and share your views in response. Use facts that can be substantiated and let people think for themselves. That’s the only way to get anyone to move ideologically.
Otherwise you’re just as much as a jerk as the other side." - Alan Gardner

This first assumes rational argument would work, it also implies that some folks have minds to change, and lastly, we're assuming the point of an editorial cartoon is to change someone's ideology. While I recognize that too often what passes for debate is simply an exercise in frustration while seeing who can be the loudest blowhard, or failing that, who is the most offensive - hoping to achieve through shock what has failed by fact. But drawing editorial cartoons means getting your hands dirty, to wallow around in the muck with the best and worst of them. Personally, I'm not even setting out trying to change anyone's mind - there is an equally important subset behind editorializing on any given topic or personality and that's open mockery.

Case in point with the recent comment by South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer comparing poor people (re: blacks) to stray animals and that they shouldn't be fed so as to not encourage over-breeding. I mean, how the fuck do you respond to something like that with anything other than contempt and outrage? I'll let other folks be tolerant and polite: full-spectrum change won't ever occur without both extremes and the middle all coming into play: in other words, there's going to be others who will take up the slack in different areas of engagement on an issue; appeasement, encouragement, tolerance etc, and then there will be some who are activists and will play that role in the overall scheme of things. 
One of the roles and responsibilities of an artist, in particular an editorial cartoonist, is to serve as a attack dog and always be on the watch for such incidents, and bring it to people's attention, and call it like it is. If innocent South Carolinians, white people and Republicans happen to get offended through any guilt-by-association with this asshole, well then let them disavow or let them defend. And let them and everyone else know it's not okay - regardless of what they think of my lofty opinion and whether or not any minds get changed it is something that needs to be unequivocally stated for the record and loudly proclaimed in public: it's not okay.

Shaming someone into temporarily shutting the hell up is a powerful rhetorical skill - granted it can be unpleasant, but it reflects the intensity of many a subject matter, and is important in clearing the air when it comes to complex issues. And when it comes to certain topics, we shouldn't tolerate fools... not gladly, not at all, and stupidity deserves to be called out as such. That'd be my opinion.

This in turn leads to stereotyping, with which as pattern-seeking beings we inherently and reflexively categorize the world around us - and so the next time a particular person of group representative speaks out, it is weighed against the filter of previous associations: example, when I hear X comment on Y, given their track record I may take their opinion with a grain of salt, or be more receptive. This does not mean my personal bias will ever prevent me from accommodating or hearing out other points of view (I estimate I spend over one-third of my time on-line perusing websites diametrically opposed to my own positions), but it will temper the input, which is an intelligent and prudent reaction to much of the idiocy that dominates discussion and shouldn't be worth taking seriously but is unfortunately still given credence.

A case in point would be these couple excerpted comments (again, in reaction to the Fiore cartoon):
"This piece of hate-America filth needs a talking to..." posted on Fri Sep 12 00:25:08 2003 by KC Conspirator
"He's a gaping, prolapsed, greased and nameless posterior with shi'ite for brains!" posted on Thu Sep 11 23:35:21 2003 by sheik yerbouty
"I wonder how well commie scumbags would speak “TeaBag” with a broken jaw?" posted on Mon Jan 11 20:25:48 2010 by Boucheau

"Shows one and all what we’re up against. That being, brainwashed, mindless, hateful destroyers of Freedom who have no knowledge of history... They remind me of the vermin that painted Swastikas on Jews homes in the 1930’s in Germany. In the end, those vermin perished too." posted on Thu Jan 7 21:35:40 2010 by ExTexasRedhead
"This is a classic fascist political tactic to caricaturize and demonize the “enemy” , in order to foment public hatred." posted on Mon Jan 4 21:56:54 2010 by Drango
Gee, somehow I just don't think these folks are open-minded to anything that doesn't reinforce their previous conceptions. Then again, maybe I'm being too judgmental, right?

Another purpose served is that in the hands of a skilled cartoonist, a potent visual image can have an immediate and lasting impact that can rally the faithful; a focal point, a reaffirmation of shared opinion, providing counterpoint to established or prevailing convention (also known as preaching to the choir: see above excerpts). I can't count how many times I've felt like cheering after reading a cartoon that gives vision to to what I wished I had thought of, or had the courage to say myself. Advocating a position (and by extension even basic citizenship) implies a responsibility to have an informed opinion. Also it quite often takes two diametrically opposing positions to eventually arrive at a balanced perspective, to say nothing of "shaking the bushes" in order to flush out as much information as possible.  
Seems to me that many people have forgotten a basic premise of editorial cartooning: to "caricature" doesn't just mean drawing a politician with big ears or a big nose - it also means distorting and exaggerating positions on issues and the issues themselves. That's part of the job description, and also a functional distinction that separates editorial cartooning from the aforementioned entertainment. It has a point.

"What monstrous absurdities and paradoxes have resisted whole batteries of serious arguments, and then crumbled swiftly into dust before the ringing death-knell of a laugh!" - Agnes Repplier

Part III

The bulk of my income is derived from Nuggets, a commercial feature that runs in a couple papers - safe, harmless gag panel material. Then there's the editorials which run in a couple other venues, and there's an interesting "Dixie Chick" effect when the lovable "Jamie" gets connected with the "Smith" fellow (the closest I get to a pseudonym) who does that other stuff.
I've always tended to take a middle-road as far as finding both the right niche and best timing to sucker-punch readers with the activism in the regular, weekly feature. There are a handful of issues which I frankly don't care if raising them offends the sensibilities of fans and I lose them over my opinions, and plus I get more "bang for the buck" that way, especially if they never see it coming.

Something similar to, for example, what Patrick McDonnell does with "Mutts" - I'm sure his fan base wouldn't appreciate getting constantly preached at, but every so often his pet peeve w/animal adoption kicks into gear and he'll run a series promoting awareness of shelters as a theme. Other big-name syndicated cartoonists have occasionally flirted with broaching real-world controversial topics, and usually get slapped down, as people don't want to mix up any politics in their daily dose of funnies or escapist entertainment.
That said, many if not most of standup comedian's routines wade into politics, and they seem to manage to emerge relatively unscathed - the role of court jester often provides cover for material that would otherwise tag anyone else with responsibility and owning a statement.
However, the underlying motivation for creating art can, ideally, both promote change/inspire debate and amuse readers, without backlash or alienation. It's just a challenge to master both ends of the spectrum, and more often than not, requires keeping one foot in each separate sphere and have that balance be reflected in the totality of one's work, not necessarily within individual pieces.

That's why it's important to understand the context of any given piece, plus take into account the motivation and history of the creator. The Muhammad cartoon controversy has morphed into a benchmark for free expression - but the initial instigation of those works were purely to antagonize and provoke. Another recent example was the infamous Obama/chimp cartoon: a cursory investigation into the track record of that particular cartoonist's work reveals an established pattern of bigotry, which preempts any claim of ignorance. Taking these factors into account might help justify one's ultimate interpretation yet at the same time the pieces still provide ammunition (literally in some cases) to those who capitalize on the offense, intended or otherwise.

Regardless of all these points, it's within each of us to assign meaning with and engage over issues, what you think is important or worth calling attention to: whether it's politics or domestic household duties, from the planetary perspective to the view from the outhouse - content and intent will for me be the overarching criteria by which to view and judge any works of art. That includes my own: there are occasionally pieces that are created for no other reason than to showcase pure skill, or get a laugh, or piss people off etc. I like to have as many irons in as many fires as possible, and I loves me a good smörgåsbord too. Rather than insisting on any restrictive definition I prefer to appreciate the multiplicity of viewpoints and roles made possible by a wide range of talents all producing works for an even wider range of reasons.

And still there's that big question: what's the point?

*All images from a 1985 vignette "For What It's Worth" done while still back in high-school: I had just gotten an aerosol-can-powered airbrush unit that used Pantone markers and was discovering the joy of stenciling - mostly in places one shouldn't.


  1. The point? There hasta be a point? I didn't know that. My motto for a long time has been, "Well, what the hell else ya gonna do?"