Charlotte Street Foundation identifies the needs and fuels the evolution of an ever-changing multidisciplinary arts ecosystem, acting as its primary provocateur. We cultivate the contemporary, the exceptional, and the unexpected in the practice of artists working in and engaging with the Kansas City Art Community

Art and Political Power


I was recently published in a literary collection called Desolate Country: We the Poets, United, Against Trump. It was a fast response to the immediate feelings of the (at the time) impending Trump presidency. It’s doing quite well on Amazon charts and I hope people continue to buy it as any extra money made from it goes to Planned Parenthood.

My addition to it started my wheels turning over a subject that had been ticking in my brain for a while: that of the power of art/stories as means to social transformation.

If you’ve spent a little time on art people social media, you’ve no doubt come across the likes of Neil Gaiman or some equally famous cultural icon saying something about how stories or the arts are “powerful.” How they have these powers to reach across a chasm of understanding. How they can join us through a shared understanding.

Frankly, as an artist, I’ve always disagreed with this opinion. I feel it obscures the real impact of art, while simultaneously flattering the speaker of the idea. It says to the listener, “I one of the important people, am helping you. This is the way I aid the world.” At it’s worst this idea is cynicism cloaked in aspirational romance, and at best, it is irresponsible naivete’. The power of stories never seems to challenge the current order it reshuffles. The power of art never quite seems to deliver a solid blow to the structures it reflects. Does it?

As far as I can gather -and to be clear, I am no one special. Just some schmo in Kansas City that has lucked his way into a platform- the most powerful reaches of a piece of art is its consumption as a shared experience.  At it’s most powerful is an ability to unlock an emotional response from a group of people: To inspire a momentary lapse of a singular self. Think of a concert, a good concert has less to do with the performance of the artist after a certain threshold of audience buy-in. When crowds of hundreds or thousands are all singing the same words, the context of that original piece of art transforms to something more potent. There is potency, maybe even a political poignancy, but this isn’t power.

At its root, when we speak of art we are speaking of the consumption of a media commodity. No matter how high-minded my ideals when writing a poem, at the end of the day they are something being consumed. In fact, that consumption can even be argued to be the final element of a piece of art within our current context. The viewer or consumer, adds the final pieces of our works real world continuing story. Going to a museum or gallery isn’t just the paintings, it’s a day spent invested in an evolving narrative element beyond the artist. And while this a series of involved events or emotional responses which may be potent it is not power in a political sense.  


Power is simple, we often conflate power with the method of it’s wielding. Power, in this context, is the ability one to impose your will. Power is not it’s historical significance or precedent, nor is it the emblem of an office. It’s force. The imposition of will is always force. Whether it’s imposing sanctions on Iran, or striking for a higher wage, it is force.


Art has no force. It has no will. Art is a reflection filtered through the self: an expressed figment. Our shadows leave no footprints and snap no twigs, they have no impact, in fact, they are easily rendered to no definition when something larger of more complex dimensions looms above.


To be clear, this is not a value judgment. Art isn’t “bad now” or useless. Especially, not art that attempts to achieve power or more closely, mimics power’s wielding. There are limitations. If we are to give our art, our reflection a place to cast itself besides this eroding soil, then we have to couple ourselves to the construction of power. If we are to give our work, these reflections, a place in power, then we must tie our real selves to a vision beyond the current order. Cultural output can be coopted. Che Guevara is a t-shirt and social realism can sell liquor. Paul Ryan’s favorite band is Rage Against The Machine. Something of deep meaning can become poison very quickly.  

If our current art is a reflection, a shadow within the shadow of those above, then what would the projection of a core humanity look like? What would we craft in the sun?  What vision of beauty that is worthy of the physical work that it would entail? Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t think any of us do. Which, is why we must be a part of these structures,  why we have to be a part of the future, beyond our reflections and filters. We do ourselves no justice reflecting, but I do believe that we can achieve the justice of projection, by bringing ourselves to this fight. There are some things that cannot be achieved with a pen or brush. However, there is much that can be achieved with linked arms and purpose.


About jamespmcnamara

I'm a poet who lives in Kansas City, Missouri. I'm currently and always working on new idras. Anybody wanna buy some? You should. I've been told by a few folks that aren't my mom that it's pretty good.

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This entry was posted on March 20, 2017 by in Uncategorized.

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