Artists Just Got A Lot More Important

Our art cannot be just for entertainment, nor just our own

Shirin Neshat is an amazing Iranian artist whom you need to know about if you don’t already. Her TED talk is fantastic, so go watch it. I’ll wait.

In that talk, she said some things I’ve recently been thinking about a lot more than I used to. I want to highlight some things and bring them home in relation to recent events.

Here’s a sample (emphasis mine):

…an artist such as myself finds herself also in the position of being the voice, the speaker of my people, even if I have, indeed, no access to my own country. Also, people like myself, we’re fighting two battles on different grounds. We’re being critical of the West, the perception of the West about our identity — about the image that is constructed about us, about our women, about our politics, about our religion. We are there to take pride and insist on respect. And at the same time, we’re fighting another battle. That is our regime, our government — our atrocious government, [that] has done every crime in order to stay in power. Our artists are at risk. We are in a position of danger. We pose a threat to the order of the government.
But ironically, this situation has empowered all of us, because we are considered, as artists, central to the cultural, political, social discourse in Iran. We are there to inspire, to provoke, to mobilize, to bring hope to our people. We are the reporters of our people, and are communicators to the outside world. Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance. I envy sometimes the artists of the West for their freedom of expression. For the fact that they can distance themselves from the question of politics. From the fact that they are only serving one audience, mainly the Western culture. But also, I worry about the West, because often in this country, in this Western world that we have, culture risks being a form of entertainment. Our people depend on our artists, and culture is beyond communication.

Art is a threat to power

So much of what Neshat said is suddenly very relevant to our privileged country. Within a week, we’ve seen dangerously swift changes to America, no-longer a full democracy––if it is still a democracy at all. A telling change is the removal of arts funding.

The Hill reports “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.”

Make no mistake: The Great And All Orange One is trying to kill political dissent.

This is not about budgets––the savings are negligible––this is about resistance, about the power that artists wield. The removal of financial support is but the prelude. Very soon, artists themselves will be in a position of danger.

No More Distance

Artists “pose a threat to the order of the government.” The order that this government wants to protect is White Christian Capitalist Nationalism. Anything outside that threatens the order. The cadre of white supremacists currently squatting in Our People’s House knows this and are taking swift steps to remove that threat.

American artists no longer have the freedom of distance. We cannot remove ourselves from politics. We do not have the luxury of art as entertainment––if we ever really did.

Our art must be political. Our art must be a weapon.

If it is not, we may well lose whatever aspects of democracy we have left. Make no mistake, those aspects––free speech, freedom of the press — are already threatened.

All Other Voices

The most important statement Neshat makes is that artists such as her are

…critical of the West, the perception of the West about our identity — about the image that is constructed about us, about our women, about our politics, about our religion. We are there to take pride and insist on respect.

We Americans need to internalize this.

The Followers of The Orange One are actively trying to define the identity of The Other. They are trying to remove the humanity of anyone who is not an extremist White Christian Capitalist.

They need us to be afraid because fear consolidates power. So they frame Mexican immigrants as dangerous. They threaten martial law in “inner cities” (Read: “Black people places”). They restrict visas to Muslim and Middle Eastern people.

America is being inundated with messages that Black and brown people are dangerous.

Meanwhile, anything that supports this regime is positive. Note all the news stories describing the Neo-Nazis as “dapper” and “re-branding themselves.” Even the main stream media positions White Nationalism as safe.

We must fight the constructed identity of Black and brown people, the constructed identity of Muslims. We must fight the subjugation and objectification of women. We must fight the idea of The Other. Luckily, we have very good weapons for this battle: Those People’s own voices.

If we want to survive as a democracy, we must actively seek criticism of our Western cultural values and of American activities abroad—that is the only way we can grow culturally.

We can’t merely focus on self-praise. We need to acknowledge the bad things America has done. We need to amplify the artistic and cultural voices of Muslims, of Black people, of Latinx people, of LGBTQ people, of Asian peoples, and especially of our Native peoples. We cannot continue to silence those who are not white, we cannot continue to define their reality by ascribing Western cultural values and goals.

And we must absolutely amplify the voices of women, of all women. We cannot continue to denounce the subjugation of Muslim women while ignoring the voices of Muslim women. We cannot continue to define the reality of Black women while ignoring the voices of Black women.

Art is our weapon

Art must be our weapon. Culture must be our resistance. But we will only be successful if we use all weapons at our disposal. All art. Black, Muslim, Native, LGBTQ, Latinx, Asian, all of it. As Shirin Neshat shows us, the art of a Muslim woman can be a powerful weapon against oppression, but only if we acknowledge that it is her voice that defines her reality, not ours.

Artists just got a lot more important. We are at war for our freedom and artists will be on the front lines.

Some already know this. Beyoncé is not an artist, Beyoncé is a general.

The rest of us need to step up. We need to be political, and we need to know our privilege. We need to hand over whatever microphone we have so that those without one can use it to amplify their own voice in whatever way they see fit.

We don’t have a choice in this. The alternative is a cold white winter that many of us will not survive.