Politics in Art

Friday, August 2, 2002

So I’ve been closer to the inside of the Austin art scene than ever before. I volunteer with AMODA, which includes performing electronic music and getting to know other digital artists. I lived with Kurt (“the Buddy System”) for a while. I spend a lot of time with Joe Stern, who takes me to all sorts of film events — shoots, parties at directors’ homes, screenings. And I’ve been spending some time going from gallery to gallery, hocking my wares as a freelance web developer (or web designer, which I use when I want to come off more arty and less techie). So, I’m getting all sorts of new input about how the whole “arts” thing really works.

One trend I’ve noticed in the art word… Someone gets so involved in their own project that they loose sight of the project’s actual value (or “coolness” if you live in Austin, where many of those in the arts have heard myths and rumors about “money” but have never actually seen any themselves). One film project Joe and I have been keeping an eye on, for example, seems to be suffering from this. Joe complains that they bring in too many PAs (“production assistants” — the lowest rung on the filmmaking ladder) to work, leveraging the excitement and educational value of being on the film set to get free manual labor. If you can find someone who understands the consequences will to go along with it, fine — but calling twenty people to come out and move lighting around for an evening while you make creative decisions doesn’t sit well with me.

I can speak from personal experience: Sometimes the process becomes the focal point when the artist becomes insecure about the art. Even if the art isn’t that great, having a big production involving many people makes it feel important. If you’re a filmmaker (continuing to use this example), getting that known star becomes an important thing. And sometimes artists feel other artists are doing better not because of their actual output, but because they “know the system” better. Or know someone who can help them out. So they begin to focus on figuring out the system and meeting that person. And then art starts slipping into the realm of politics. This rubs me the wrong way.

Especailly when I have to talk about it excessively.

To me, playing political games is not a free-time activity.

Both Harold and Joe have said something to me along these lines recently: “But don’t you want to maximize the effect of whatever art you produce? Don’t you want to get the most out of it?”

Sure. But let me bring up a point about art that you may have heard me harp on before.

I remember hearing Dr. Paul Woodruff (head of the Plan II Honors program at UT and one of my freshman lit profs) mention that students should learn to appreciate poetry so that they could write it themselves. Writing poetry represents a simple way to process ideas and lay them out on paper; it’s healthy for the mind to have that sort of creative outlet. (This isn’t an exact quote and I’m probably adding some colorations that weren’t originally there — I think Dr. Woodruff would agree with my phrasing, though.)

I don’t write much poetry. But I agree with the sentiment.

Art, to me, isn’t about politics, commodification, or economy. (This is more difficult to defend as someone who doesn’t make much money and for whom focussing on the art “industry” could change that.) Art is the tangible leftover of play. I play with sound in my music. I play with color when I do graphic design or paint. And play is very important and healthy for the brain. Play is inspiring. That’s why people like to watch other people having playful experiences — then they feel a part of that experience. And that feels good.

When art becomes focussed on setting a goal and achieving that goal, then it becomes work. It becomes gray, dull, and much less interesting. And if it’s work that someone is after, there are much more useful, valuable, and creative things to do that paint, write poetry, or make audio tracks. The value of those endeavors comes from the play involved. Remove that, and they are worthless.