Philosophy, Politics, and the Role of the Artist, Part II
I.Notes from the St. Martin Book Fair
In Part I of Philosophy, Politics, and the Role of the Artist, I explored University of St. Martin President Francio Guadeloupe’s assertion that the technological is the colonial. Guadeloupe, as I noted in Part I, suggests that “As politically heuristic as the distinctions between despots and democrats, atheists and theists, creationists and evolutionists, or in more macro terms the imperial West and the developmentally arrested non-West may be, these fade into insignificance when one comes to see that the technological is the colonial.”
I end Part I with my own question, “Now, I am trying to ask not only what is happening, but to whom? And how, do I, as an artist, as a human being, respond?”
In a seminar on the role of the artist, and building on his assertion that the technological is colonial, Gaudeloupe suggests that one way the artist can respond to the “technological is the colonial,” is to inhabit and “push the “in-between.” That in-between is a space between/among/around those heuristic distinctions that include the colonizer and the colonized, the oppressor and the oppressed. Gaudeloupe suggests we can be the in-between ethically, by looking “at chinks that reveal what is happening, let us look for spaces in ideology.”
II.From Bruce Clarke’s Dominations (Homnisphères edition)
I bought Dominations at the St. Martin Book Fair after listening to Visiting Artist Clarke’s keynote speech and viewing an exhibition of Clarke’s large paintings of refugees which are published in another of his books called Sea Ghosts.
A combination of text, paintings, art, interviews, and commentary, Dominations is the type of art that arises from the “in-between,” in style, form, and content, waking us from our stagnant dreams. Part of the book discusses a project that lives in the world, The Garden of Memory, a collective memorial project for the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi. “One million stones, each bearing the name or a distinctive sign of a victim, will be posed on a site of approximately one square kilometer…The project provides the refusal to forget or negate the existence of the genocide.”
As a counterpoint to art that forgets and erases much of the world, The Garden of Memory provides one example of how artists can work in the “in-between” of art and politics, creating a space for memory, questioning, and freedom.
Here are some quotations from the book:
“On a daily basis but in different ways, we both try to gain ground against the numerous machines of domination. We both attempt to open up a realm of freedom in the world of creation, an alternate space.”
“Within the chinks and clefts of its contradictions, there is the potential to reflect and act: confronted with imposed truths, should we simply stand by open-mouthed avowing our powerlessness?”
“Art is, however, part of this world and should help us to break down the walls that surround us and denounce the myths that are eating away at us…Without creating new ones.”
From an interview with Clarke, published in the book:
“Art is not a weapon. You don’t change the world with art. I see art as a process that can accompany or enlighten us about a given situation.”
“…I think it’s crucial for the artist to be aware of the forces modelling him in order to go beyond them, in order to express himself freely.”
“It’s true that painted images can’t explain the world, but these windows can allow us to glimpse other aspects of the world, pushing us to question the world in which we live and the way it’s explained to us.”
I would add that written words as well as images can’t explain the world, but the stories we tell and the way they tell them can also push us to question the world we live in. Too often for American writers our stories do not question the in-between, but serve to confirm what we want to believe about ourselves and our limited world. They don’t show the writer’s awareness of the forces modeling her, enabling her to inhabit her colonizing dream of forgetting. Clarke’s work is an example of the type of art that I hunger for and aspire to create.
Like many other writers, I have often quoted John Gardner’s well-known writing advice: that the goal of the writer is to create “a vivid and continuous dream.” What I have taken that to mean is that a writer of fiction wants her work to be like a dream the reader does not want to be awakened from. For Gardner, being pulled out of the world (dream) of the novel, through improbable plot, bad writing, boring scenes, are all things the writer must avoid.
And yet, I wonder if the metaphor is apt for me now. Educated, upper-middle class white American writers like me (who are overrepresented in almost all aspects of the American literary scene) often write a about a tiny world that exists because of our unexamined erasure and forgetting, which align with the colonial instead of the in-between. In an essay in The Critical Flame, I discuss Jess Row’s essay “White Flights,” which examines several prominent white American literary writers from the 1960s. I write, “By locating their [these white writers’] fiction in specifically white spaces…these writers remove themselves from the geographic and demographic realities of America, a move which, he [Row] writes, ‘boxes writers into smaller and smaller spaces.’” If we as writers are not careful, we could become trapped in our own impoverished dreams, writing in these increasingly smaller spaces that do not explore or acknowledge the in-between.
As Nobel-prize winter Chinua Achebe says, “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is, don’t upset the system.”
Instead of creating a vivid and continuous dream of forgetting which can shrink our vision, writers should perhaps focus instead on waking up and acknowledge that what we choose to write and to ignore is a political act. As a writer, I’m increasingly interested in ethically exploring the in-between, to make these chinks visible. Especially if a system has benefitted me, allowing me to live in my tiny “dreamscapes” that are built on the backs of much of the world, it’s important for me to explore the “what is happening” and “to whom.”
In his St Martin Book Fair keynote address, Clarke reminded us that “Ubuntu is an ancient African word, meaning: ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’” It’s time for me to explore that space in-between the limits of dreams and the struggles of this brutally beautiful world, to examine how who I am is because of who we all are.