25 November 2013

The purposes of art

Last week I had a bad cold and spent the majority of my time either sleeping or binge-watching episodes of Fringe. Today, though I'm feeling quite a bit better, I have continued the media frenzy by gorging myself on Russell Brand videos.

The more I learn about what he's doing, the more I respect him. But it goes beyond that: I am amazed by his ability to remain clear-headed and connected to his perspective and purpose in the face of adversarial interviewers or hostile Brand X guests who perpetuate modes of thinking into which he may have once fallen but no longer shares. And he does this without resorting to blaming and shaming. He does it with compassion and respect for both himself and the people with whom he engages (for the most part). I believe his ability to stay clear-headed comes from a deep connection to himself and to his values.

I want that.

One of the reasons I quit my day job a little over a year ago to become a freelancer is that I wanted the freedom to choose the work I engage in, to choose to work on projects that are in alignment with my values (as opposed to being assigned tasks that grated against those values).

And I chose to make editing my bread-and-butter because I didn't want to be in a position of having to bend my art (i.e. my writing) to someone else's idea of marketability. (This is also, by the way, the reason I've chosen to self-publish my pseudonym's work.) I want the writing I create to be consistent with my worldview and values rather than perpetuating dominant/mainstream narratives that I've found to be untrue.

In my studies as an English major I've come across arguments that true art is apolitical, that it is purely expressive/reflective without judgment or that it is solely for the purpose of entertainment, and that the moment one consciously attempts to imbue one's artistic work with any sort of moral or political message it ceases to be art and instead becomes propaganda.

But what I also learned in my studies of literature is that all texts - whether the artist intended to be purely expressive/reflective or not - contain political messages that reinforce or challenge the dominant cultural narratives to one degree or another. While people may consume a movie or a book "just for fun," they are nonetheless exposed to ideas about how the world is, how it works, what is right and wrong, and how people should behave. I think there is no such thing as an apolitical narrative and that anyone who asserts that their narrative is apolitical is merely ignorant of the water in which they swim.

How much of mainstream media, for example, perpetuates the notion that the keys to happiness are a certain level of wealth, status (i.e. power and/or fame), and/or a traditional romantic relationship (monogamy + co-owned real estate + children)? Or perhaps a better question is: How many books and movies can you name that do not ascribe to these ideals? These messages may be expressive of the artist's view on life or reflective of the society around them, but they are nonetheless political.

Is it not better then to be aware of the messages one is disseminating through one's art and to make conscious choices about them? I can't answer that for you, obviously, but I can say that it's the path that I've chosen. A few weeks ago my developmental editor, Diane Gilman, observed that a lot of my writing seems to focus on (as I think she put it) "alternative models": ways of doing or seeing that are different from the norm. It's important to me that my writing reflects my emotional truth about the ways in which cultural norms and dominant narratives have failed me and that it explores other possibilities that might work better for me and/or others for whom the traditional models don't work so well.

Them's my two cents. What do you think? What is/are the purpose(s) of art?

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