The Power of Art vs. Power Politics

I’m an artist/idealist. As a composer and presenter of music, I operate with the faith that the arts and ideas change people, transform them, and open them to greater sensitivity, tolerance, and humanity. In turn, individuals so affected exert influence on society and even the direction of history. Art, albeit in abstract and tangential ways, gains political traction beyond itself by helping to fundamentally mold the consciousness of engaged people.



John Kennedy

And so all art is political in this light. I’ve always held close to a quote from Umberto Eco’s The Open Work, where he talks about how avant-garde artists protest through their form. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve interpreted this for myself expansively, and used more traditional forms and genres knowing (at least to myself) that there was an activist agenda in there. I’ve written overtly political text-driven music, and I’ve written abstract post-Cagean social process pieces. But I wonder—do those works achieve political intent any better than my little children’s chorus about generosity?

Today, we are living and working in exceptional political circumstances. We are at one of those historical junctures where political consequences have profound and lasting social consequences. I won’t rant here—you can do it below for me, if you like—but we are talking about power politics on a grand scale, far removed from the realm of artists/idealists. In spite of the reach of the Internet, we are sheltered from the bleak realities across most of the globe, and the relationship between our privilege and other’s suffering.

So while I love when artists exhibit social consciousness and bring their work to politics, I caution that we not mistake this engagement with other active forms of political engagement. Art is pretty helpless against the will of power. Discussion can be abstract and a nice diversion over tea. Now, it’s time to hit the streets. And it’s time to acknowledge that as artist or citizen, political engagement requires more than a casual button on the lapel or a vote for someone who one thinks is supposed to do the work for us. You don’t water a plant once—you keep it alive and growing.