During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Central Intelligence Agency used soft power tactics through the form of smuggling banned books into Russia and flying musicians to perform in foreign countries to exert American cultural dominance internationally.
The Chinese Cultural Revolution expelled and persecuted hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and artists to set the stage for modern-day censorship and all-encompassing state surveillance.
Today, incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are banned from reading several books, including Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which details a historical account and analysis of how the prison industrial complex has become a new form of racial discrimination.
This is what the artists and scholars meant when they said “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Or another way of thinking of this phrase, “a revolutionary dies once but the idea lives forever.”
Art is power because at the core of it is a calling to take action as it provokes an emotional response.
I want to consider disrupting the concept of “good art” in the context of whose art is deserving of attention and praise and who artists envision as their audience.
Western art holds its roots in “commercialization” in the way it was consumed and sponsored by the socialites of society. Think Italian frescoes, Michelangelo and Da Vinci were both sponsored by the ruler of Florence at the time, Lorenzo de’ Medici; artistry was largely restricted to men.
In the English classroom, most of the reputable classic poets we studied were Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, in short, mostly dead white men.
Today’s art world is far more diverse and expansive; the Indian-born Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, with her poetry in decapitalized text, lack of punctuation, pithy lines paired with raw sketches have made her a literary sensation on Instagram in western media. She boasts an audience of over four million who like, repost and share her work.
With such open access to art, it’s easy to assume that it is no longer an esoteric form and that the keys to cultural influence and power are given to all. But we must remind ourselves of the precariousness of an artist’s making in the present.
Artists no longer benefit from the patronage of wealthy individuals who fund their work. In fact, many artists use Patreon as a platform for supporters to donate small monthly amounts to receive exclusive access to their work.
In some ways, art has become so abundant in online spaces, creatives are no longer valued for the labor of their work, another distortion of the principles of supply and demand. The phrase “starving artist” is often a cautionary tale to young people choosing a career. At times, gifts and talents go wasted because people are told they are child-like or immature for pursuing a dream so financially unstable.
Those of us who are successful and profit off our creativity can face burnout and exhaustion from the need to produce without rest. Shonda Rhimes in a TED talk describes how she was sucked into the industry of television and constantly working on new shows driven to the edge until she recovered a sense of playfulness with her daughter simply allowing herself the space to be apart from her work.
Statistics show an alarming number, that over a quarter of individuals living in the U.S. have not read a single book in 2019. This is especially higher for low-income Hispanic and Black communities where individuals are also likely to have never visited a library.
I haven’t even begun to touch upon other marginalized communities that are affected, such as the disabled community or the deaf community where the art world has rarely shifted to meet their needs of accessibility.
What is the future of artistry?
Are artists doomed to a penniless existence or do we become the machine producing until we break down? Will only some and not all be able to appreciate the cultural power and conversations that happen in the art world?
Fortunately, artists are dreamers for our generation, even now, there are new ways people are envisioning organization through collective action and mutual aid to rely on each other for needs and safety rather than state social safety nets.
Much of my journey in writing has relied on the foresight of people who took a chance on offering me financial aid for workshops I would not otherwise have access to. Poetry workshops appear weekly through drop-in classes on a pay-what-you-can sliding scale which allows folks of all financial abilities to participate.
What then is the purpose of art and the artist?
Toni Cade Bambara is widely quoted as stating “As a cultural worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible.”
I first saw Kara Walker’s murals in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, huge silhouette paintings that seemed almost carefree and innocent in the frolicking pastoral scenes they displayed.
Upon closer look, these same images displayed explicit scenes of violence, gore, defecation, sex, shocking the viewer to re-examine what they once perceived. Her art subverts the gaze and delves into racist caricatures of characters in the antebellum south that forces her audience to confront the history and the convoluted past of a supposedly “post-racial” America.
An artist’s identity is inextricable from their work. Walker’s art is informed by her experiences as a Black woman in America. This essay is by extension queer, Asian American, and diaspora because these are the multitudes I hold within myself.
It’s a radical reframing of who controls narrative and most importantly who is revered and remembered in the U.S. where art has historically excluded most voices that were not male, cis-gendered and white. It’s maybe even a frightening time for some, but this is a gentle reminder: the end of something invariable spells the beginning of another.
We are in a moment of renaissance at a critical moment of conversations surrounding the hegemonic structures of white supremacy and looking forward to abolishing outdated institutions.
Art needs to be anti-classist, anti-ableist and anti-racist. It is not just the rich or the white or the educated that should be able to appreciate beauty or elevated forms of expression.
Implicitly, when the “gatekeepers” prevent certain artists or certain audience members from entering a world of prestige and acclaim it assumes these individuals’ stories are not worth being shared or that they lack the refinery and mental capacity to appreciate nuance and color. It means we lose an entire sector of voices that would enjoy and celebrate art; access to knowledge is a right, not a privilege.
We must be vigilant for this is nothing less than cultural warfare. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice”, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg added, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion”.