Artist-Activists Don’t Take Themselves Seriously

I have a hard time describing in a nutshell what I do, but one way is “literalizing metaphors.”

Here’s what I mean: folks react to something in our moment that taps into their fears (e.g. Russian hacking of US democracy, Macedonian teens creating fake news for Google ad revenue), article sharing with a whiff of despair. Every now and then they crack a nervous joke about it.

An artist-activist in my network once shared an article about Russian hacking and joked that it might be worth thinking about hacking poets. It struck me as a half-joke, light-heartedness in the face of what seemed helplessness to affect what was being joked about. I asked whether they were serious about it. The artist-activist jokingly avoided the question but I pressed it. No, they weren’t serious about it. Or so they said.

These kinds of jokes strike me as metaphors we don’t take seriously. What artists take seriously is the field of representation: the stage and the page through which they feel they have mastery. Any struggle is confined to these spaces of representation. The most celebrated artists — not just those who are establishment, as it were, but also the daring-seeming up-and-comers happily confine their work to representation. Audiences can then congratulate themselves for having been made to think.

Not taking one’s own joke seriously — as the artist-activist did — struck me as a missed opportunity: what was missed was the chance to move beyond the taken-as-given, tacit field of struggle (the stage/page) that counts as art. I defriended them because I can’t stand artists not taking themselves seriously, which is why I literalize what others take to be metaphors.

No Space for Reflection

What is literalizing a metaphor? I often remind myself, “No ideas but in things.” Most artists — even or especially ones who might identify as activist — bank on the hope that what happens on the stage/page serves as some kind of catalyst for transforming audiences/readers, tasking them with doing the labour of translating these ideas (not in things, or at least products that have a life beyond artistic economies like grant applications) into action in the world.

The space of reflection after a show, a book, or some other artistic experience is all too temporary. Most of us can’t afford much in terms of prolonged spaces for reflection: no arts retreats in the mountains, no fantasy cushy positions through which we can devote ourselves to our work. I’m more interested in what we do apart from these apparent havens for reflection: I know all too well when I teach artists in the mountains that everyday life will come flooding back.

No one can afford a space before or after everyday life, so unless we figure out how to rethink our work as something that occurs within and through the world, we’ll be frustrated forever, whether at the news headlines we share on social media or at the encroachment of having to make a living in order to pursue our art in some other space.

The lack of such spaces is my baseline: we would do better to figure out how reflection is folded into everyday life. What we have granted as art’s domain, won’t cut it: no matter how edgy the work, audiences/readers will experience a catharsis of returning to what seems the world. A half-joke, on the other hand, is an unresolved tension, a feeling that goes nowhere for now. It has to negotiate something unsettled that wasn’t settled as “art.”

I believe that there doesn’t need to be any translation or carrying out of these ideas into the world if metaphors were literalized: when the thing is already “out in the world,” by which I mean a field of struggle that is not bounded clearly as the space of art.

To take all too seriously what we half-joke about is to confront the liberatory value in our nervousness that we don’t grant to our art because it grows like weeds in the cracks of the sidewalk. These nervous jokes are perhaps the opposite of serious reflection we grant ourselves after experiencing art on the stage/page: they remain half-digested and unresolved, absolutely folded into everyday life rather than separated from it.

I wish people would take themselves more seriously.

Thanks to Su-Feh Lee for being an interlocutor.

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