Annoyed by recent events? Feeling disempowered by media depictions? Renee Liang discusses the role of creatives in responding to public events.
"As artists we have the skills and freedom to explore an issue on many levels. We can make people see in technicolour, not the black and white of a newspaper page."
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Hands up, who’s been pissed off by current events recently? I’m guessing more than a few. From my own avid ‘research’, there’s been a lot of internet time-wasting discussing the dispute over actor’s rights for The Hobbit, the apparent (non) agenda for arts in the Supercity, and of course the inflammatory comments of Paul Henry.
There’s therapy, of course. I favour incoherent rants to my boyfriend (who tells me not to waste my energy on dickheads) and posting cleverly dismissive insults online so my friends can click the “like” button. In the past few days I’ve even been driven to send an email to a MP and lodge an official complaint, a big step for a politically apathetic creature like me. Though I’ve done my own survey (at least as thorough as TVNZ’s) and realised that I am in the unspoken majority of New Zealanders who feel that none of this makes any difference. The politicians will go on printing out emails on non-recycled paper for shredding and bigots will go on horse-chortling and saying “it’s just a joke, the problem is you’re too PC.” Right?
WRONG. We’re creatives, and that makes us powerful. Whether we use paint, words or our bodies, no group is more qualified to make our voices heard. Let me make my case. We spend time listening and watching the world around us to extract material. We’re confident manipulating our chosen medium to express ourselves. We’re trained to catch the nuances of audience response and adjust our output accordingly for maximum emotional impact. And we do this again and again, until we’re good at it.
The politicians are mere guppies beside us. And the beauty of social media is, we don’t need to be an overpaid shock jock with buck teeth to be heard.
Because I’m a nerd, I’ve kindly googled art vs politics on your behalf. And I’ve come to a few conclusions. Unsurprisingly, the intersection between art and politics has been dissected, debated and discussed by everyone from annoying French literary critics to your average man on the street. There are those (especially politicians) who say politics has no place in art. I think the opposite.
Politics (or reaction to it), which is ultimately driven by personal passions, can be a creative spark like no other. And artists can most definitely sway the course of public opinion, as proven by the repressive regimes which target writers and journalists (see the PEN website for details of currently imprisoned writers). There used to be a time when any politician wishing to succeed had to convince a poet to back him (I know- how things have sadly changed). In an attempt to circumvent this, kings, emperors and political leaders through the ages have claimed the gift of the bard – China’s state publisher still distributes Mao Tse-Tung’s poetry as some kind of bible. In ancient Athens, the birthplace of modern democracy, politicians depended on poets and dramatists to win them the popular vote.
In Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel acceptance speech “Art, Truth and Politics”, Pinter starts off apparently innocuously by discussing his process for writing plays, but turns this (cheer!) into a stinging attack on America’s involvement in the Iraq War. He writes: 'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'
And this is the first of many points where art trumps politics and makes media grandstanding look like kids playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. As artists we have the skills and freedom to explore an issue on many levels, to engage with it and dissect it, and to take others on that journey. We have subtlety and intelligence on our side. We can make people see in technicolour, not the black and white of a newspaper page.
But why bother? Who’s going to hear us? What difference can one voice make? Poet Adrienne Rich, in her essay The Hermit’s Scream, wrote, “We may think of ourselves as individual rebels, and individual rebels can easily be shot down. The relationship among so many feelings [and necessities] remains unclear. But these thoughts and feelings, suppressed and stored-up and whispered, have an incendiary component. You cannot tell where or how they will connect, spreading underground from rootlet to rootlet till every grass blade is afire from every other. This is that "spontaneity" which party "leaders," secret governments, and closed systems dread. Poetry, in its own way, is a carrier of the sparks, because it too comes out of silence, seeking connection with unseen other.”
Did that send shivers up your spine? It did for me. Such is the power of words. Yesterday, having run out of crude nouns to describe Paul Henry, I decided to be more elegant and attempt a villanelle. It doesn’t have the cathartic power of calling someone a dick, but now I’ve got something to perform in public. Over and over again. And in line with Rich’s encouraging words, other websites have already started linking to it. And doesn’t it feel good to turn all that wasted emotional energy into a creative impulse?
And so I come to my last point. We as artists may not have anywhere near the power of politicians. But what we do have is our ability to create, record and perpetuate. As Roger Rosenblatt wrote in Time magazine, “Poetry has none of the active power that politics has. It can protest or commemorate a war but cannot cause one…The power poetry does have, however, is staying power. It outlives politics mainly because the language of poets outlives the language of politicians ….That eternity of language, reaching as far back as forward, is what politicians fear most about poetry, when they do fear it, and it can make a terrible enemy. Politics touches some people at particular times. Poetry calls to all people at all times. By its existence it demands generosity and expansiveness.”
So there’s no need to feel helpless, people. When you feel the need to rant incoherently and call someone a f***ing arsehole….do that. Then sit down and write a poem or create a piece of theatre and make it real and make it deep and make it generous. Then share it with the world.