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 Is Not 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 Desolate Country 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 stories have the power to reach across a chasm of understanding. How art can join us through a shared, immediate understanding.

Frankly, as an artist, I’ve always disagreed with this opinion. Not that I don’t want it to be true, in fact, my very desperate want for its trueness was my initial means to challenge the idea. I realized my poems, stories, and ideas were not politics, but a retreat from them. Adam Curtis argues this in his documentary essay, HyperNormalisation to an extent.

I feel this opinion, art being a form of politics or a form of power, 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 do it.” 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 to 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. Connection, as temporary as emotional connection can be, is the height of arts transformative abilities. True art can challenge assumptions, but assumptions are more founded in constant reinforcement than intrapersonal shock. One of the functions of culture itself is necessitating buy-in. In order for culture to work you have to believe it’s the best option at hand.  People do not defend systems of oppression because of a single moment in time or a single experience, they do so because the impetus to do so is ambient in our daily lives.

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 a crowd of hundreds or thousands is 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. It isn’t power because that moment does not carry for long, soon you’re back at work or school, and the reality of your world overtakes that moment: memory absorbs it, instant impact becomes a dull warmth, and eventually it becomes the story of a feeling. This moment of potent release quickly fades into something with no walls and no roof. It was only a shelter because temporary circumstances deemed it so.

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 is force. The imposition of will is always force. Whether it’s imposing sanctions on Iran, or striking for a higher wage.

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. But there is a limitation and we can see it. 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 transformative 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 co-opted. Che Guevara is a t-shirt and social realism can sell liquor. Rage Against The Machine is Paul Ryan’s favorite band. 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 or heartbreak is worthy of the physical work that it would entail? Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t think any of us do. That vision is something that can only be discovered beyond the fog of our circular present. 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. We cannot abandon our pens and brushes, but 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. Let us discover our projection.

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 and tagged , , , , , , , .

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