Saturday, February 11, 2017

Art as resistance

In his book “The Rest Is Noise” and elsewhere, Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, has addressed the roles that artists play, often with unintended results, in times of social and political upheaval. He revisits that theme in an essay on artistic gestures of protest against the Trump administration.

He warns against engaging in “agitprop,” an old communist abbreviation for agitation propaganda by literary and artistic means. By taking that route, artists cede their only real power, free artistic expression, to politicians and political activists.

“To create a space of refuge, to enjoy a period of respite, is not necessarily an act of acquiescence,” Ross writes. In an environment that produces “an emergency of the soul,” artists’ most potent response may not be overt protest, but performance that “forbids the indifference of routine. Art becomes a model for the concerted action that can only happen outside its sphere.”

Ross’ advice is not likely to satisfy the resistance, but it’s artistically wise and tactically smart.

This president came to power by attacking “the elites.” The arts are by definition elite; artists are perfect foils for populists. (The long fight over the National Endowment for the Arts testifies to that.) When performers or poets or painters – especially those whose work is provocative – go after a populist leader, it serves as confirmation for his followers that he is hitting the right targets.

Ross’ prescription is to combat political and social toxicity by espousing compassionate humanity with a passion that can summon, in Abraham Lincoln’s memorable phrase, “the better angels of our nature.”

If the resistance succeeds, it will do so by persuading people that “this is not who we are.” Artists are best able to contribute to the cause by showing in their work who we can be.