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Political Art

ART TIMES Jun, 2004

ONE OF THE reasons I have little interest in political art — of any stripe — is because I have such little respect for politics and politicians. I am so ashamed — have been for some time — of the quality of personality our governmental politics attracts and find myself constantly bewildered that from such a large population we tend to scrape the bottom of the barrel to consistently find integrity-challenged candidates to tout for this or that office. We seem constitutionally unable to choose leaders that are not deceitful, mendacious, weak-principled, easily corruptible, self-serving, spineless, and amoral. The story is at least as old as when we began gathering into clans and tribes, and yet we perennially seem to forget the fact that moral uprightness has relatively little to do with getting to the top.  It might be well to recall that the same qualities that bring a person to the head of a political party — cunning, ruthlessness, a desire for power — are the same ones that bring a person to the head of a drug cartel, a Tong gang, a marauding horde, or the mafia. From my perspective, politicians seem of a piece: pandering mealy-mouthers that constantly try to stroke me, constantly try to convince me that they are the answers to my prayers. They are not even remotely able to stroke me, nor are they capable of answering any of my needs — prayerful or otherwise. Whether the tongue is forked, glib, or blundering, it still amounts to bombast and a broken promise is a broken promise. The road to Hell — and so forth. My skin tends to crawl whenever I am confronted by some agenda-based reformer wheedling and cajoling to garner my attention. Emerson once noted in a letter to Herman Melville that for every one hundred do-gooders hacking at the bushes, there was only one working at the root. If he were around today, I am sure that his ratio would be much more dramatic — and I have my doubts that any are even close to attacking the root. Folks, we're not going to see any changes until we preface our dreams with "lemme" rather than "gimme." We get what we create. So. Don’t I have to put up with enough double-speak in the daily media without having to stumble across it in my dealing with art and artists? Nowadays, I hear more political agendas being dragged into the service of art than I can shake a manifesto at. One would have thought that the Social Realists of the '30s had exhausted the field. Many of them were top-rate artists and, if they couldn’t make a dent in man's capacity for maliciousness and ignorance, what chance do young artists have of steering politics today? Are gallery-goers any smarter than they were back then? If mankind is hell-bent on destroying the environment, trodding down the poor, holding on to prejudices, picking on the opposite sex(es), falling for hype, idolizing celebrities, and passionately embracing their xenophobia and jingoism while generally playing the part of the fool, I don’t see how hitching art to any of these foibles is going to help — no more than stitching samplers back in the old days tended to make anyone appreciate home, hearth or country one whit more — or less — no matter how wise the homily or how fine the stitching. You want to make mankind wiser? Then use your talent more wisely. How? Do your homework. Read a bit about history. You can begin by looking at what your early masters did. Then read writers like Emerson, Anatole France, Erasmus, Boethius, Plato — oh, Hell!  — a whole raft of thinkers — who’ve tried to show us that you have to approach the problem of mankind's perverseness with a bit of savvy. Old Mark Twain warned that the “unvarnished truth” is “unpalatable” to the majority of humans, and that you have to sugarcoat it before you can get people to swallow it. Take a hard look at the tired old stuff you continue to drag out in the name of art. It may be easing your conscience to be "doing something," but it just ain't doing the trick. So, please! Stop showing me "art" that tells me I'm being politically incorrect. Let the politicians do that. Besides, who today can possibly be ignorant of our incorrectness — political or otherwise? Be a real artist and show me how to enlighten my soul — and let me make the leap on how to become a better person.

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