As an artist, I’ve considered many things to be a canvas or blank page – a wall, a stage, an old house in need of renovation, a garden, a community, a philosophy, an ideology. One of my jobs as an artist is to examine what is and think about it differently – to be an artist is to be a problem-solver, explorer, researcher and communicator. I like to think that I’m good at that and that these are positive attributes for society. There are even categories for poet, writer and visual artist in the Canadian government’s National Occupational Classification, so my role in society has been validated officially, if not financially. I am, after all, expected to obey the laws and pay taxes and I have the right to vote like everyone else.
I recall a statement I read when Franke James was in the news. The implication was that art is art and that art should not be political. That has to be one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard. Art is neither decoration nor entertainment. I would argue it’s more along the lines of a toolbox.
Take politics out of art and you take away Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, most of Goya, Maya Lin, Frida Kahlo, Ben Shahn, Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz – well, I challenge you to find a modern master whose work doesn’t contain a kernel of politics. In fact one of the only ways to learn about the history of 20th century political movements is through its artists, musicians, playwrights and authors.
Never having been drawn to the role of political animal personally, I find myself mad as hell much of the time, stamping my feet and trying to conceptualize a better Peterborough than one revolving around big box stores, casinos and other community soul-destroying cash cows. Despite the high unemployment here, many artists as well as other professionals have relocated to Peterborough precisely because of its small town atmosphere and vibrant arts community – not because there is a Walmart on every corner.
Not that artists are complete strangers to politics. Broken City Lab is a collective whose practice revolves around social change and re-visioning civic space in post-industrial Windsor. Cultural workers are at the heart of The Academy of the Impossible, bringing education back to earth with peer-generated, free education. Artist-run centres (of which our own Artspace is one) provide opportunities, education and space for artists to show non-traditional, thought- or even action-provoking artwork. And who can forget the glorious Hummer Sisters who placed second in Toronto’s 1982 mayoral race with their Art vs. Art campaign?
What does the artist as politician look like? Is there a Pygmalion opportunity awaiting us to rejig a politician as an artist? If politicians are also artists, why do they so rarely identify as such? What would a town or state look like if it were run by artists?
Undoubtedly the food and wine would be outstanding. Lots of music. Artists, almost all of whom live below the poverty line, are very canny, creative and resourceful when it comes to finances, so public funds would be stretched in new and exciting ways. Arts administrators are wizards at fundraising and making something out of practically nothing. Many of those in the arts have big picture and visualization skills, so official plans would be dynamic and far-reaching. Musicians are often a gregarious lot, they might succeed at a certain kind of glad-handing, as long as it involved performing and was sincere. Writers and visual artists could work together to make sure documents were beautiful and communicated with the public on various levels. Unfortunately, artists would likely be bored by meetings, but short meetings could translate into cost savings, and if theatre people ran them, they might even become entertaining – an admission fee could be charged, making public engagement both viable and lucrative. A new currency standard might be based on time or beauty, no less virtual than our current banking system, or maybe there would be no standard at all – think of navigating through the world of international currencies that exist now. There would probably be fewer rules and less structure on the surface, but artists aren’t altogether opposed to structure they just enjoy breaking and reworking it.
We ask our politicians to be good at fiscal management (which they pretend to be but usually aren’t), but maybe we should be expecting, nay demanding, that they be creative if we are to trust them with our financial and social well-being. Imagine the insights of Ai Wei Wei, Theaster Gates or William Kentridge if they could be put to work actualizing rather than criticizing public policy. These artists have no problem mobilizing the co-operation of large numbers of people, working within complex institutions, or realizing projects on a massive scale.
By extension, perhaps it is time for more artists to come out of their shells and explore new ways of using their creativity, extending even to politics. Use it as a canvas, a stage, an instrument, a medium.
But there I go again – imagining what does not yet exist and challenging myself and my audience to explore and perhaps even build that possibility … nonetheless, that’s my job, even if I don’t get paid for it.