In a new article on the American Prospect site Jeff Chang and Brian Komar argue that:
The Democrats are hurting in a big way after the 2010 mid term elections because they failed to grasp the importance of shaping the narratives through using artists the influence “culture.”
Democrats think that they can focus on policy to move hearts and minds.
“Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater, visual arts, and media” and that “Cultural change is often the dress rehearsal for political change. Or put in another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.”
“When artists tell new stories, they can shift the culture and make new politics possible — cultural strategy is about understanding that fact and empowering artists to do what they do best.”
I couldn’t put my finger on why I was troubled by this article. Talking with Rob helped me to clarify it over email.
Here is what I agree with:
Yes artists have a place in society.
Yes artists can help to create narratives that can help us see new possibilities. The most awesome presentation of “narrative” or a story that I have seen is Danny’s blog “The People’s District” where he goes around DC interviewing people and posting them on his blog. Narratives across race and across age and class, it is one of the freshest things I have seen in a while.
However, what troubles me about the article is that it assumes this kind of top down model of social movement change, instead of a circular one or one of push and pull.
In many ways I see that it is saying, The Democrats need more people, and those people are artists rather than the Democrat’s need to be engaged with basic relationship building and maintenance and doing the things that impact the conditions of the lives of their base (African Americans, Latino’s, LGBTQ folks, Progressive White folks, union folks etc.)
Rob pointed out that in many ways Jeff and Brian’s argument is both pragmatic and rather conservative. Pragmatic because it looks at using existing channels to advance the “Democrats need more people, artistic people” agenda, conservative because it is assimilationist in many ways.
Meaning Jeff and Brian also argue that culture changes first and then electoral politics change.
Whereas I contend that art informs electoral politics/ legal actions and electoral politics and legal actions inform art.
This is what The Culture Wars was about, right?
2 Live Crew, censorship and parental advisory stickers? (Legal action)
Cheryl Dunye’s Black lesbian film Watermelon Woman and censorship? (Financial and Government action)
Wasn’t an exhibit censored at The Smithsonian last week because of sexual content?
We can even take it back to the Birth of a Nation. I would argue that the hearts and minds are where they are, and then the art comes out of that. The art captures where the hearts and minds of folks are first. This is a real Leroi Jones/Baraka reading of art production that I take from Blues People. The audience then shapes what the artist creates. Keep in mind that corporations/the free market also play big role in shaping what artists produce. Dave Chappelle walked away from $50 million, lets ask ourselves why? A question we should always ask is why are these the stories being presented to us?
Another example that we can take it back to rap music, and NWA specifically. NWA because it represented this moment where Black men, living in post-factory cities, who were swooped up in the crack game, were talking about THEIR day to day lives, their narrative, without the explicit intent on getting rich because back then rappers didn’t get “rich” in the way that some are known to be in Forbes magazine listed today.
I had NWA in mind when Rob asked “where is the counter culture that can push back on the main narrative” because “we used to have countercultures and counterpublic spheres that could operate outside the dictates of the market’s logic, everything is within the confines of capitalism now.”
I thought of rap music, skateboard culture and even some blogs. Where is the counter culture?
Art and music, film, books, television are ALL used to help us make sense of our lives.
But honestly, what good is a counter culture or books, art, film, television when half your hood is unemployed? You have a job but you STILL need foodstamps? The bus or subway is crazy expensive and you can’t get to work? You can’t pay your rent or mortgage. You have no money for Christmas presents.
And, what good is a counter culture or culture when, simultaneously the Democrats and Republicans are looking at giving bailouts/tax cuts/wealth redistribution to billionaires and millionaires and other members of the college educated elite when you are barely making the rent, or your child’s college tuition is due, or you need more post-op physical therapy but all your sessions have run out, or you are working but you don’t have enough money to pay back Sallie Mae for your school loans and they are calling you twenty times a day.
Perhaps what we need isn’t just “more artist’s” changing the narrative but the political will to invest in the food, clothing and sheltering, education, and health caring of human beings.
Do Democrats need more artists?
Why not focus on the fact that bailouts for everyday working people is what is needed?
How can Democrats use culture when the free market will take anything, repackage it and sell it right back to you? For example Ice Cube going from NWA to Disney.