Wherein we discuss art, politics, and good dogs, Brent.
Hi, everyone. I hope your first three weeks of 2017 have gone well. Mine have gone as I expect the next four years to go: Things are very good on a personal level, but up in the political ether are horrible people making horrible political decisions that affect people much less privileged than me. I’m managing to work my way through with a mix of good self-care and righteous activist rage. And writing. Lots of writing. Which is really what I am here to discuss.
This morning (January 23rd), Twitter user and actual badass Naomi Clark posted this screenshot of an exchange with We Rate Dogs(tm), a Twitter feed dedicated to tongue-in-cheek reviews of cute dog pictures, most famous for the current meme “They’re good dogs, Brent.” In this screenshot, the Dog Reviewer takes flak for posting a picture of a good dog with a Women’s March protest sign, and decides to fire back. It is no secret that I support the Women’s March; so reader, I retweeted them.
Artists: Be at least as political as We Rate Dogs. That’s not a high bar. https://t.co/OgmJwMHQC0
— Tyler Hayes (@the_real_tyler) January 23, 2017
Mostly, my post got Liked. But one good friend (and fellow artist) did express concern about this phrasing. Reading what they have to say, I feel the issue deserves greater expansion on my part. So here goes!
When I implore artists to “be political,” I am not saying “Be political in the same way We Rate Dogs was.” An Internet friend (in the same discussion as the above) put it very nicely, actually: “I’d say its less about artists needing to be as political as this– artists can’t fail to be political– so much as it is artists need to own their political positions at least as much as this.”
Really, there are three issues at work here. One is a semantic issue with regards to what counts as “political.” Layered on top of that issue is the cultural issue that (as the Internet friend put it) “political” is often conflated with “controversial” — which, again citing them (thanks, Internet Friend!), is a problem because it means that dominant cultural ideas that are, in fact, political tend to go unquestioned. The third is the classic weapon deployed against any artist who dares to be political: The idea that owning one’s politics is inherently damaging to one’s brand.
To the first point: I am saying that if you believe in a cause, any cause, put that in your art. That cause does not have to be one with a fancy name; it does not have to be art about the Women’s March, or the Republican Party, or socialism. It has to be something you care about that you are putting out in the world through your work; a change you wish to see in the world, to quote the oft-CafePressed slogan. Do you need to talk about abuse you or someone else suffered? Paint a painting that shows us that pain. Do you believe it is important that people practice radical compassion? Show us through your main character. Are you angry about the hypocrisy displayed by or about a particular public figure? Make a movie that draws uncomfortable parallels.
Room is political. Steven Universe is political. Rogue One is double-bonus political. Any art that holds a mirror up to the world and says “There’s a better way” is political. And the passion the creators have for the messages they are conveying echoes through the work and enriches it. And this is the thing I am trying to say: Never be afraid to let your art reflect your beliefs, and never be afraid to own those beliefs when questioned.
And if you are not putting a cause into your work deliberately, consider what cause you might be putting into it accidentally. As mentioned in the second point, all art advances an agenda, even if that agenda is to reflect the conventional wisdom of your place and time. And that can be OK, if those are beliefs you own, but I do think that being aware of the message you are sending is important. I’m not trying to talk down and say “You just don’t see your own politics, nyah.” Nor am I trying to say “If you are not being deliberately political, you are Doing Art Wrong.” I am trying to say that if you see those beliefs you hold so dear leaking in, that’s not a bad thing. Never be afraid to let your art reflect your beliefs, and never be afraid to reexamine your beliefs through your art.
Now, sometimes art is done to pay the bills, because we all need to eat and capitalism really sucks. Never, ever let anybody tell you to not take care of yourself, and that includes me. If that means you produce a story that advances an agenda that is signing your paycheck? A photograph that is total vanilla stock footage, carefully trimmed of any subtext? A kid’s show script that is painstakingly inoffensive? Good. You take care of yourself. It’s also OK if you are doing those things because you want that kind of comfort available to people; that’s a belief. Never be afraid to let your art reflect your beliefs, even when those beliefs are not “political.”
Before I wrap up, I want to just take a second to be violently annoyed with the inculcated artist’s fear of losing followers and fans. This is not an illegitimate fear; I am sure that choosing to speak my mind has lost me some fans, and maybe a story sale or two. However, the effect tends to get grossly exaggerated. Award-winning actors have come from both extremes of the political spectrum, and have rarely been shy about it. Wil Wheaton, a nerd icon, is so far left I look like a Young Republican by comparison. Twitter is full of writers talking leftist and liberal politics, including Hugo Award winners; not to mention writers for Marvel Comics, who until recently were helmed by an out and proud Trump supporter. You can flourish in the arts without ever having to hide your beliefs. In fact, speaking personally, talking more about my politics has actually increased my exposure: I have more followers since I started getting real about my views, and I have more enthusiastic followers, too. Your mileage may vary, of course — I am in a position of relatively great privilege — but it’s gone very well for me.
The point of all this is that I do not say what I say re: political art to make anyone feel bad. You do you. Always do you. That’s really my point, actually — that if you want to put your politics out there, want to be empathetic, or angry, or just make people think — do it. Own it. Don’t be afraid of it. Because art is powerful. It’s why fascists gun for it. And if you do, I’ll be here supporting you every step of the way. And so will a lot of dogs.
They’re good dogs, after all.