It’s All Easy Listening

I enjoyed Ken Johnson’s article of March 17th about Shepard Fairey’s “art,” or, in Mr. Johnson’s words, “a kind of visual easy listening for the college-educated masses.”  What caught my attention was not so much the assessment of Fairey’s work specifically, but Johnson’s overarching point about the mind-numbing effect of supposedly mind-opening works that go wrong by explicitly attempting implicit subversiveness.

There is a bigger-picture umbrella point of which Johnson’s commentary on the “fatally familiar” idea of “being subversive through art” could well be a derivative or example.  Maybe, as Johnson suggests, Fairey’s overly artful endeavors reflect a “naiveté” regarding the real world of popular culture in which “every day we are swamped with images and ideas that pretend to confound conventional thinking.”  But maybe, Fairey is just another person struggling, though perhaps naively, to express his grievances within a world that has become largely desensitized to dissent.  Maybe, the problem confronts not just Fairey and those like him; maybe it’s not even limited to artists.  In fact, there is a question that looms large over everybody (in America? or elsewhere too?) who cares to make any improvements to the world we live in: how does one truly make a statement when nearly every statement has been made and every method worn to the ground?  How does one communicate with impact?

The challenge of communicating with impact is two-fold; it is a matter of both apathy and general ineffectiveness.  Consider, for example, the official protest zones that are becoming increasingly commonplace at political events.  True, the ACLU and others have launched many a campaign against so-called “free speech zones.”  Yet the cordoning off of protesters is also increasingly accepted as routine, along with the protest itself.  Consider the people inside the protest zone.  They wield predictable “End the War” or “Impeach Bush” signs.  Some have come equipped with lawn chairs and coolers.  When the offensive event is over, most will pack up their signs and their picnics; they’ll return home to eat dinner with the family and maybe check the t.v. for coverage of their valiant efforts before heading to bed.

When protests are anticipated like sporting events—the number of attendees predicted in advance, their disruptive impact preemptively minimized through measures like “free speech zones”— the protesters’ message loses all spheres of potential leverage.  The act of protest too loses meaning when the protesters themselves treat it like a sporting event and those few who bring greater passion to the table (or, to the barricaded zone) are seen as objects of idle amusement by people surfing the news for topics of conversation the next day.  When we (protesters and onlookers alike) accept the barricades, accept the business-as-usual methods of protest, both the message and the act of its delivery are doomed to fall flat together.

The problem here is not “all of you pretending to protest or standing by” whom I might seem to be reproaching from the non-existent loft of “neutral commentator.”  The problem is the inevitability of falling into one of those reproachfully impotent positions—if not for lack of passion, for lack of effective techniques of persuasion.  Most of today’s potential protesters have all either “been there & done that” in the 60’s and 70’s or “seen pictures & heard all about it.”  The will to stand up for our beliefs through unstructured and sometimes sacrificial channels is shriveling up.  Meanwhile, more structured channels are equally tired and ineffective; we are so accustomed to activist outcry over various “issues” and “causes” that the causes all start to blend together.  The impossibility of contributing to every issue or even choosing between them resonates more acutely than the pictures of starving children and dying forests.

And, to bring the discussion back to where I started with Shepard Fairey, art itself has become so intentionally (whether more or less overtly) message-laden that the artists’ messages frequently fall upon ears deafened by all the noise and eyes blinded by too much light.  Everybody is trying to say something; we have over-communicated.  We have also subjected the art of communication to laboratory-like study and treatment, boiling it down into sterilized sets of testable and teachable techniques designed for specific stakeholders; the grassroots activist cheerily totes his trusty toolkit of petitions and postcards while the politician delivers her litany of sound bytes and rhetorical flourishes.  In our scientific mastery of communication, we have undermined our ability to communicate anything seriously at all.

So never mind certain obvious barriers to effective protest, like the startling lack of media coverage of the people who did passionately attempt to get their message out at the RNC last fall, or secretive administrative conduct that conceals protestable practices from the public to begin with.  Equally if not more disconcerting is the answer to the question: “even given full information and a free public platform of expression—even given passionate dedication—how can I make my voice heard and my ideas resonate?”  At this point in time, I think the collective answer is, “I don’t know.”

Ken Johnson suggests a different answer when he says, “maybe if some such psychological dimension were more consciously integrated, Mr. Fairey’s work would be more like art than like canny illustration of what everyone already knows” (emphasis added).  Maybe.  But, I fear, probably not.  Strategically, when it comes to inspiring change or saying something new, age-old channels like art and politics might still be best.  But tactically, succeeding may mean thinking much farther outside the box; it may even mean abandoning thought altogether at times when to be deliberate is only to “pretend to confound conventional thinking.”

At the end of the day, we are not left entirely without hope as long as communicating with impact is rooted in the ability to inspire others.  As long as inspiration remains in the world—and surely we have all been inspired, whether by a Renoir or a Fairey or an Oscar-winning movie—it must be possible to move individuals, as well as the collective, toward a vision of something better. But we need to work harder, to find new ways to inspire and to open ourselves up to inspiration.


Filed under Opinion & Essay

2 responses to “It’s All Easy Listening

  1. Kevin Vandevoorde

    Nice piece, Clara. Your critique of the current condition of protest really resonated with me and it got me thinking about what’s missing.

    I remember back in 2007, Kathy and I went to see Michael Albert speak at Macalester College. And this was obviously a guy cashing in on his role in the lofty, liberal intellectual, Noam Chomsky set. It was a major disappointment. Albert did little but blather on about the shortcomings of the major players on the political left. Little more than a fossilized turd, Albert celebrated his life as a “protest guy,” and during his seemingly endless speech, the only thing he seemed to be protesting was that 1966 had become 1967.

    I frequently joke that I’m left of left, but as liberal as I am, this sourpuss was not the guy who was ever going to get me to show up to a rally. And it’s because Albert NEVER explicitly stated an attainable political goal. Oh sure, there was talk of a “movement,” but I had no fucking idea what the movement was moving toward.

    Flash forward two years later, and the nation is a far cry from what Albert predicted that night. Obama is in the White House, Dems are a seat away from a filibuster-proof congress, and the republican party, for all intents and purposes, has collectively shit its pants.

    All because there was an explicit, tangible goal. Did we all rise up with pitchforks? Nope. Did a majority of us even show up to a rally? No. But Obama, and the Clintons, and all of the players on the political left came up with a tangible goal: “Elect this guy.” And with a strong door-to-door volunteer effort, organized hierarchies of phone callers, and an intelligent application the internet, we got organized, and we got it done from within the system. Not only that, but along with Obama came several congressional seats that flipped in our favor too.

    So, sure, maybe it wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t a grand gesture of protest. Maybe it wasn’t an overnight paradigm shift. But a political goal was achieved through subdued, focused pressure. And now change is actually happening.

    And going back to art, maybe that’s what’s missing these days.

    In the midst all of the deconstruction and clever postmodern gimmicks like “OBEY,” we’re missing the guts to state a cogent, viable (yet imperfect) thesis, and stick to it despite its shortcomings.

  2. clarapy

    Kevin, you crack me up!! (and, you know, fill me with wonder, admiration and warm fuzzy happiness.)
    Thank you for reading! and for responding!

    My [conspiracy theorist side’s] continued inability to fully believe in that which seems to be political reality still muddies my complete acceptance of your & Kathy’s ever strong, articulate and reality (/”reality?”)-based defense of the possibility for positive growth and change–but I think we’re on the same page with the ultimate conclusion that there IS reason for hope…I might just see more (and/or less clear) work ahead to act on that hope! :P (e.g: 1) dismantle capitalism; 2) come up with something that’s actually better; 3) initiate said Something Better…etc ;)

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