Creative Resistance: Art Will Set You Free
This sermon, “Creative Resistance: Art Will Set You Free,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on April 16, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Rochelle Collins
A brief excursion back through history reveals how strong the ties between art, culture, politics, and power actually are. Rulers and conquerors of states, kingdoms, and empires of both the ancient and modern worlds have strategically employed the arts to venerate their victories, reinforce their power and intimidate and malign their enemies.
From Imperial Roman medals, coins and statues which commemorated the rule of powerful emperors, to Medieval monumental works of art that, under the facade of Christian themes, were created to support the ideological interests of the church, art has consistently been in the tactical employ of leaders and politicians. Single-party political states like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had unabashedly employed a wide array of artistic means to help achieve their goals, as have most modern day political systems.
Only hours after coalition tanks rumbled into the center of Baghdad during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American Marines secured a chain to the large statue of Saddam Hussein and proceeded to topple the effigy of the Iraqi leader. Perhaps to reinforce their point, and much to the delight of television news producers from around the world, one of the soldiers draped a U.S. flag over the head of the statue before it fell. It was quickly removed, perhaps due to neocolonial symbolism of it all.
According to many of the media commentators that day, the destruction of Saddam’s monument was comparable to the toppling of statues of Lenin or the fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe a decade earlier. For some of us, however, the event served less as a corollary to the triumph of capitalism over communism or dictatorship, and more as a conspicuous reminder of the ubiquitous connections between art, culture, ideology, and power.
The Goddess of Democracy: Tiananmen Square
While the use of art as political statement by states or ruling parties can often be viewed as an act of persistent subjugation and/or propaganda, art can also be a strong form of resistance–often becoming the visual collective voice of the people (and from there, often codified into a symbol of their resistance and cause). For example, the Chinese students who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square for democracy during the summer of 1989 certainly understood the power of art in relation to politics. They painstakingly built a 30-foot monument, The Goddess of Democracy, as part of their attempt to confront the State’s own symbols of power.
The Chinese government, knowing full-well the connections between art and politics, ordered their troops to destroy the statue (and open fire on the demonstrators) after only four short days. Millions of people from around the world saw these events depicted in newspapers and on television and, not surprisingly, reproductions of the Tiananmen Square monument soon began emerging in public spaces around the globe. There even became a market for miniature representations of the statue, much like those of the Statute of Liberty sold in gift shops around New York harbor.
Abstract Expressionism: Visual representation of freedom
So in the examples we’ve seen so far, it readily becomes apparent how strong the connections between art, culture, ideology, and power can be. It seems almost natural, for instance, that the CIA would have funded many of the international exhibitions of American Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War. Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete on the world stage.
But let’s continue – there was the time when it would have been inconceivable that a rock band would be asked to play a Presidential inaugural gala or that a Presidential candidate would play an instrument on a late night talk show to massive approval ratings or even that pop cultural icons from Ronald Reagan to Jesse “The Body” Ventura, to Arnold Schwarzenegger to yes, even game show host Donald Trump would run and be elected to high public office.
It appears that we have become rather comfortable mixing our entertainment with our politics. Areas that were once considered trivial venues of art and entertainment are now used for profound political education. (Looking at you, Fox News, CNN and Breitbart, among others.) This shift in societal consciousness from political science to primarily the cultural realm has important implications. Any political information that we receive now needs to be examined in a more thorough way than ever before through the complex connections between culture and politics.
According to visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff (1999), the human experience is now more visual and visualized than ever before, and visual culture (which, of course, much of art falls into) is not just a part of our everyday lives, it is our everyday lives. The everyday aesthetic experience is an often overlooked but important location where many of our attitudes, knowledge and beliefs are shaped. It has been said that only through art are we able to be awakened to the invisibility – the mundane – of the everyday.
Why art as creative resistance?
Because visual culture is being used more than ever before as the political, art needs to continue to be used as a tool for exposing and addressing oppression and encouraging social transformation. This leads us back to the idea of resistance through art.
Resistance, defined by critical pedagogues, is oppositional behavior that challenges institutional power and/or dominant cultural norms. Resistance within art should be envisioned as consciousness-raising, a way to critically reflect upon and effectively challenge repressive practices and dominant structures that reinforce the inequities of the status quo. Resistance should be both disruptive and creative, leading to thoughtful opposition and a meaningful engagement between the political, cultural, and power structures in our society.
Actually, there is much precedent for this using visual culture as resistance, including but not limited to the statue created in Tiananmen Square. Visual arts have been used for decades to reveal tears in the social fabric, thereby exposing the chasms between fundamental societal values and the dominant discourses and normative practices of the status quo that can go against these values.
Since the early 18th century, artists have utilized their work to inspire, offend, and enrage audiences, to awaken the unconscious, and to communicate ideas and emotions otherwise difficult to articulate (Clark, 1997). By calling attention to the social, political, cultural, and religious mechanisms and restrictions that inform our actions and temper our beliefs, artists are able to expose us to ourselves, to each other, and to the world we are attempting to cultivate together. This artistic highlighting of our identities, our beliefs, and our actions (and inactions) is often disorienting and almost always discomforting. It frequently trembles the ideological ground on which we are accustomed to standing. From gay activists to Guerrilla Girls, Dadaists to Conceptualists to Culture Jammers (which I’ll explain in a moment), socially engaged artists have repeatedly addressed and redressed issues of sociopolitical and cultural significance, and in the process, undermine our ability to function with blinders on within a dysfunctional world.
Using art as resistance leaves us less immersed in the everyday and more compelled to wonder and to question. It is not uncommon for creative resistance to leave us somehow ill at ease or to prod us beyond acquiescence. It may even, now and then, move us into spaces where we can envision other ways of being and ponder what it might mean to realize them. But moving into such spaces requires a willingness to resist the forces that press people into passivity and bland acquiescence. One way to jump-start this movement is by culture jamming.
Intro to culture jamming
Although the term “culture jamming” was first’ used in 1984 by the San Francisco audio-collage band Negativeland, the concept itself dates back to the suffragette and avant-garde movements of the early 20th century. These radical artists and self-described social agitators adopted sociopolitical issues as their primary focus and challenged dominant conceptions about art and artists. They directly confronted the rigidity and hierarchical superiority of the art institutions, and society, of their time.
Groups of avant-garde artists across Europe in the early 20th century developed pictorial procedures which broke away from rules of compositional harmony and conventional ways of creating the illusion of perspective and space. Dada artists, which we’ve mentioned before, embraced counter-aesthetic imagery and modern techniques like photomontage, which easily facilitated the creation of satirical forms of visual representation and which, because it didn’t require special skills to create, resisted the here-to-fore privileged status of the artist as a trained professional.
Marcel Duchamp, the most well known of the Dadaists, has been described as a “shock artist” who used his art to confront and expose the insanity of the post-War world: From Duchamp’s perspective the world that emerged from the horror of World War I was pathological and insane. Duchamp discerned that he had to use his art to call attention to this reality. Like “shock artists” before and after him, Duchamp railed against the social, cultural, political and religious restrictions that undermine our ability to see the derangements that confront us everyday.
L.H.O.O.Q. is a work of art by Marcel Duchamp. First conceived in 1919, the work is one of what Duchamp referred to as readymades. The readymade involves taking mundane, often utilitarian objects or images seen so often as to become commonplace and transforming them, by adding to them, changing them, or (as in the case of his most famous work Fountain) simply renaming them and placing them in a gallery setting.
L.H.O.O.Q. is a cheap postcard reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa onto which Duchamp drew a moustache and beard in pencil and appended the title. When the title is pronounced in French, it sounds like the speaker is saying “She is hot in the ass.” Duchamp took a more gentile way and said it meant “there is fire down below.” He created this at a time when French upperclass saw Mona Lisa as a symbol of their sophistication and the cult around the image was almost like a religion. Duchamp’s salacious title and defacement caused the French upperclass to freak out.
Examples of culture jamming
Back to culture jamming–21st century culture jammers want less corporate control and more democratic forms of visual representation, including more inclusive images in art, by manipulating corporate symbols/campaigns (their artistic grandfather Marcel Duchamp would undoubtedly appreciate their work). Current examples of culture jamming include the magazine Adbusters.
And can be done by anyone with a spray can, or stickers even.
A recent example of culture jamming can be seen in New York’s Financial District. The Charging Bull was designed by Arturo Di Modica, who spent two years creating his bronze statue to represent the resilience of the American people. In front of the bull is a new addition to the scene: the statue Fearless Girl by Kristen Visbal, who bravely stands before the bull. The plaque at the base of Fearless Girl reads:
“Know the power of women in leadership. She makes a difference.”
The artist stated that “the girl is not mad at the bull; she’s confident and wants the bull to take notice of what she’s capable of.”
How can you creatively resist?
You don’t have to be Duchamp or deface billboards to participate in creative resistance. On the left is the vagina tree in Yellow Springs. Celebrating spring through highlighting birth, and connecting vaginas to leaves – to life, to renewal. And making one man so distraught that he freaked out and felt compelled to hang penises next to the vaginas – probably resulting in a bunch of baby trees nine months later.
The tote bag is another small form. It’s not much, but it appears to be written in Arabic. The aim of the designers from the Rock, Paper, Scissors Collective was to tackle social misunderstandings in a humorous way. The text on the bag translates to “This text has no meaning except to scare people who don’t understand it.”
You can paint rocks with important historical women’s names for International Women’s Day and place them in prominent public spaces, like someone did this year in Lebanon.
Using the examples discussed here, along with many others that were not mentioned, we can begin to think about the ways that we as citizens of the world can examine, challenge, and transform ourselves, our communities, and the world(s) in which we live through the use or re-use of our common visual culture.
Rochelle Collins is a member of Harmony.