On Art, Politics,
and Social Change
An unasked-for paper on the role of Art in the Social Change Movement- a subject added as an afterthought to an otherwise well-organized, well-attended and comprehensive Founding Convention of the SFPO progressive movement in San Francisco.
What role do artists play and how their role can be better understood and supported by the progressive movement.
Any leftist who has studied revolution in the world knows that popular movements are largely driven by artistic expression and the artist...in Vietnam, Ireland, the Civil Rights Movement, Chile, South Africa, El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua,and Angola. In these struggles music, dance and poetry have been at the forefront. It is only in the United States that the role, necessity, and the essential nature of art is always up for debate.
Our government begrudgingly funds the arts. This phenomenon is not just a result of the conservative’s agenda, although the move to cut arts funding is led by them. It results just as often from a failure of the left, the Democrats, and the artists themselves to articulate the fundamental role that art and culture play in our lives. This poor analysis plays into the eternal battle in this country which pits the arts against social service, paving the way for the Democrat-run Senate in Sacramento to slash the California Arts Council, with virtually no opposition from the ranks of forward-thinking people70 million art dollars have gone out of the state in the last few years, but who would know and who would care?
But really, why does it matter? The benefits of the arts are hotly debated, because like everything else in a capitalist society, art has been turned into a commodity. We are forced to create small business models and compete for audience and dollars in a society that does only the most minimal amount of art education. In many cases in the United States, the arts serves only the most elite classes. But other countries around the world, art is the bread of life. People in Nicaragua did not chose between better food and poetry, they wanted both. They had art programs even when they had little food and medicine and were under constant attack by the Contras. The same is true in Cuba, and throughout the European countries where socialism is not a dirty word and government support for the arts is taken for granted.
Today in San Francisco, there is a possibility that the Set-aside fund of Grants For The Arts will be put into the general fund. This fund is one of the only direct funds for the arts in the United States, and that is what makes it unique. The people of San Francisco should realize that without an untouched steady stream of funding the arts will be cut, because the nature and importance of art is so poorly understood in this country and in a contest with social services, will always come out the loser.
I would hope that the progressive board members who spoke as leaders at this conference will hold a strong line against this possibility, and set a tone for San Francisco and the rest of the country that art funding needs to be protected because of its fundamental relationship to the truth and to the struggle for social change and social justice.
Artist serve the progressive agenda for many reasons, but primarily because it is the artist who will find a voice to startle, change and challenge the status quo and, in many instances, tell the truth about what is going on when no one else will. Artist have been killed and imprisoned all over the world because they stand by their beliefs. To get rid of the truth-tellers is a primary goal of the Republican Party. That is why we have the worst news media in any “democratic” society of the world and they are all complicit, from Fox new to the SF Chronicle. Now more than ever, art must be defended because it is a front- line defense against fascism, and because fascism is on the rise in this country. Art should not be pitted against hospitals, housing or anything else in the fight for public funds. It is as important now, at this time in history, to keep the channels of communication open between the artists and the people as it has ever been. Art is the soft tissue that builds communities: it inspires, it connects, it mend the broken heart, it heals, and most of all it terrifies the keepers of the status quo when it dares to speak the truth. It is my firm belief that the people that run our government, with its current vicious mouthpiece of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld and their cohorts in the Senate and House, are deeply engaged in a last- ditch, robber baron, winner-take-all strategy. This is a strategy that has little to do with the people of the United States, and more to do with confiscating resources and infrastructures to build huge family dynasties that supercede the current borders of Nation States. Nothing exemplifies this more than the recent oil price hikes, during which the prince of Saudi Arabia flew directly to Texas to meet Bush at his private ranch, bypassing Washington altogether. Not even the decorum of doing business in Washington anymore! We are in a very dire situation, and with the current players every principle, politic, and pot of money is up for grabs and is fair game.
And that is why what is happening here today with the SFPO is so important. If anyone can articulate a politic, a platform and a revolutionary agenda and movement, it is the forward thinking people of San Francisco and the Bay Area, and artists should play a pivotal role. We are here today to become organized, united and driven to take on the real issues that confront us, and send a message and a model out to the world that we are not going to continue to accept solutions that include torture, vigilantism, expanding the prisons, incarcerating the youth, bombing Iraq, decimating pensions , creating a testing system that prevents kids from going to college. Nor will we accept solutions that will turn SF, the hot bed of revolutionary thought and culture, into a playground for the rich. The artist will not be used to gentrify any neighborhood: it is not in our interest or the interest of the people of San Francisco. We are the most forward thinking people in the country. The Bay Area is the birthplace of so many social and cultural movements, from the Black Panther Party, the Latin American solidarity movement, the beat poets, hip hop and rap, the hippies, he 60’s movement, the women’s music and literary movement...SF gave birth to the Long Shore men, gay rights, AIDS support and services, and now the transgender community. We have developed a cultural front like no other place in the world. We are the voice of the anti-war movement. We need to reinvigorate massive demonstrations that don’t stop, we need a radical candidate to take on Schwartzenegger, a candidate who can get into the debate whether we can win or not. We need to send our message out to California, and then perhaps it will spread like a fire across the country. We can not solve the problems of San Francisco in a vacumn. We need to put aside our egos and petty differences and build not a just a progressive movement, but a revolutionary movement, and we need to do it fast. Planning for the future has a whole different meaning as the environment becomes more and more unstable. We are in trouble and we need leadership. San Francisco progressives who are willing to come together and take a strong, bold, and creative stand, with visionary leadership, could change the course of history. I honestly think we have everything to lose if we don’t. Let’s get going, every one of us, united- history will absolve us!
of Dance Mission