Friday, March 19, 2010 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Artistic Tastes & Political States: A Meditation on Art & Ideology

posted by Andrea Assaf

Question: What is the relationship between aesthetic tastes and political ideology?

I.

How do we form our aesthetic tastes, our likes and dislikes?

By familiarity, or the frequency with which we’ve been exposed to something, which influences the level of comfort we have with it – like comfort foods, or old clothes that make us feel warm and cozy. By alignment with our current value system or world view, or what supports our notion of reality and makes us feel that we’re standing on solid ground; what makes us feel “safe.” Or, by what we know how to read or interpret, what is comprehensible or accessible to us.

Sometimes what we think we like or don’t is not our own, but a product of social pressure or conditioning—what we’re supposed to like, or what we will receive support for responding to favorably. In more benign cases, this may be as simple as developing an appreciation for a certain kind of music, perhaps because your partner enjoys listening to it at home, or your parents always played it on long car trips or at family gatherings. More insidious scenarios may be developing (or feigning) an appreciation for a certain kind of art because it signals a certain class status and allows you to function at privileged, invitation-only events … Or, not liking a particular form of movement or sound because it might identify you with a class or race or gender status you’re trying to leave behind, avoid, or “overcome.” Or, you might not “like” speaking a certain language, because you were beaten for doing so at school when you were very young—a practice repeated in so many colonial schools around the world, and even in the U.S. as recently as the mid-20th century. This points to the problem of internalized oppression that so many of us, particularly as people of color, as women, as people from working class or immigrant backgrounds, battle throughout our lives … Or perhaps we just ignore it, in an effort to “get by,” assimilate or survive. Internalized oppression is one of several reasons (see more below) for the persistence of Euro-centrism and patriarchy in U.S. cultural production, even as the demographics of our nation shift rapidly, far more rapidly than our institutions and support systems do.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that all aesthetic tastes, attractions, likes or desires are the result of social conditioning. As a queer person, delving into public discussion of desire is always quite complex, and delicate. Yes, perhaps we are born with some “preferences” or orientation. I am of the belief that the experience of attraction and desire is not necessarily a matter of choice. To what extent environment influences sexual attraction is a very nuanced debate, and perhaps a bit off-topic here; but certainly the vast majority of us are still raised in social environments that actively disparage or punish, and in no way promote or encourage, attraction to individuals of the same gender/sex. Most of us actively and painfully struggle, in the process of coming out, against our social conditioning in order to accept, reveal, and follow our true desires and the call of love.

That said, there is an incredible body of theoretical work written on the subject of the production of desire, from psychoanalysis to post-colonial theory, to critiques of globalization and capitalism. And I do believe that such production occurs, on a variety of levels.

II.

Of course, the sense of what we “like” can be changed, or evolve over time. Different phases of our lives bring different appreciations and desires, and many of us “acquire” tastes as we age, or as we are exposed to new things. Some of us actively desire to acquire new tastes—and the desire for difference, itself, has ideological underpinnings, from Orientalism to political solidarity.

Further complicated is that “like,” preference or taste isn’t always the same as desire or pleasure. Have you ever been inexplicably drawn to something, or someone, you didn’t particularly “like”? Or developed an experience of satisfaction doing something, like exercise, that you initially hated, found painful, or had to force yourself to do?

Recently I’ve been working with a Kirpala yoga teacher, who instructs her students to “discern between pain and sensation.” If something is causing you pain, stop doing it. If it’s causing you to experience sensation, see if you can stay with that, be in it, discover what it might teach you, or how you might stretch. Often we tell ourselves, and others, that we don’t “like” something because it causes us sensations that we’re not used to experiencing—which we then interpret as discomfort, react to, fear or run from, as if it were causing us pain. Sensation might feel uncomfortable, or challenge us to be present with it, but that may actually be where the growth is.

When I was 19 years old, studying acting in New York City, I had the great privilege of studying with a master teacher who had been a member of the legendary Group Theater. The first thing she did was write the word “comfortable” on a chalk board, and then vehemently strike it out. She said, “We don’t use that word in this class.” The message was clear: if we’re trying to stay comfortable, we’re not going to learn anything, and we’re not going to grow as artists.

III.

We live in such a comfort-obsessed culture in the United States, where increased comfort is marketed as the road to happiness, and familiarity or predictability is mistaken for safety. Just as financial worth is so often mistaken for, and emphasized over, social value.

And what is familiar is often the result of xenophobia, U.S. isolationism, and the long, tragic legacies of political and social segregation that we’ve all grown up with in this country—along lines of race, class, religion, language, physical ability, sexuality, subculture, and more.

What we know how to “read”—what is most familiar, and therefore comprehensible or accessible within the modes of understanding that we are comfortable with—becomes what we call “good,” especially in art. If we don’t have the tools to access meaning, or the confidence to trust our own responses to a work of art, we often just say we don’t “like” it. This where our industrial-era school systems are failing children: in privileging logic over experience; in enforcing the idea that there are “right” and “wrong” answers to every question; in continually cutting and reducing the amount of exposure, interaction, and direct experience of creative practice that young people are getting in public education. When our schools include art in the curriculum at all, the emphasis is usually on the biography of the artist, structural or form-based analysis, and approaches to interpretation that suggest there’s a correct answer which the student will be graded on. But learning to appreciate art, to engage with it, and to create, is a far more internal process— one of looking internally, of opening ourselves to multiple ways of knowing and understanding, of reflecting on our experiences, listening to our own responses, and trusting what we know in our hearts to be true. Any ideology of education that does not support these capacities does not help our young people develop their own aesthetic sensibilities. And these young people often grow up to be adults who are uncomfortable with abstraction, and artistic expression that does not fit into their conception of what is “right,” aesthetically, socially or politically.

Another contributor to our national deficit of artistic appreciation is the corporatization of mass media and mainstream art venues. TV and Hollywood reproduce cookie-cutter characters and formulaic plot lines that actually reduce, rather than expand, our collective imaginations. The aesthetics of realism and naturalism, popular in the European theater as the technologies of film were being developed, came to dominate the commercial U.S. film industry. Hence, artists who are truly exploring the capabilities and creative possibilities of the medium have been relegated to “experimental” or independent (i.e., not financially capitalized) film production. Meanwhile, the commercial film industry has, in turn, shaped the development of theater production in this country, and the same homogenization—and lack of equity in the distribution of cultural resources—has occurred in the realm of live performance.

Cultural “industries” in the U.S. generally emphasize “entertainment value” over challenging or provocative art. Programmers and producers tend to privilege artistic work that supports what they perceive to be mainstream or dominant culture views, under the (really unexamined) belief that such cultural production leads to increased revenue and profit, while “risky” work leads to financial loss. As our nation’s demographics change, and the majority becomes the minority, institutions continue to cater to the audience base that they assume has the most money—which is usually white, middle or upper class, often middle-aged and older—an audience base that institutions have been bemoaning is “shrinking” for over ten years now. At the same time, our nation’s communities of color are growing, and newer aesthetic forms—such as Spoken Word, Hip Hop dance and “old school” activist rap, Krumping and Clowning battles, visual arts at the intersection of murals and graffiti—these forms are drawing thousands upon thousands of young viewers, new audiences, and active participants, and growing every year … despite being under-capitalized and under-resourced. Why? Because our institutions are scrambling for survival, while our and funding mechanisms are relying on the larger institutions to lead the way—and they’re all looking for the future, but often in the wrong direction.

So why are our entertainment industries and entrenched cultural institutions so reluctant to change? Because it makes them uncomfortable. It seems risky, unfamiliar, or “political” as opposed to aesthetic (that tired, false dichotomy again). Or because they don’t “like” these new forms, which don’t suit their “tastes.” Because the leadership and boards are still majority white, middle or upper class, middle-aged or older—and too often individuals who have yet to confront and examine how their own ideologies, and xenophobias, are preventing them from truly seeing, trusting, and supporting their communities and emerging artists.

IV.

Of course, I am generalizing. There are many, many arts institutions that are genuinely progressive, cutting edge, and actively engaging these questions and shifts (although they are not adequately supported to do so). There are many, many artists and administrators who are people of color and becoming the new generation of arts leaders (although race, as we know, does not necessarily determine any particular aesthetic preferences, or a progressive ideology, which brings us back to the issue of internalized oppression). And there are thousands and thousands of teachers battling every day to keep arts programs in schools, to push the boundaries of standardize testing and required curriculum, to open the hearts and minds and creativity of young people, all over this nation.

What can we offer them, these young creative souls? How do we ourselves approach art, and talk about our “likes” and dislikes, aesthetic preferences or “taste”? Do we even acknowledge when we’re talking about taste, or do we just say the work is “good” or “bad”? How do we become aware of our own ideologies embedded in our tastes?

Listen. Listen to yourself. To your own response. Listen to where it’s coming from inside you. What does this work trigger? Where does it resonate? What makes you uncomfortable? Are you experiencing pain, or sensation? If so, why? Ask, is this work of art asking me to stretch in new ways? Is there something I’m attracted to in it? If so, why? Do I like it because it’s popular, or because I think I should? Do I “like” it because I recognize it, it speaks to my deepest understanding of reality? Do I like, or dislike, it because it’s truthful? Is that satisfying or uncomfortable? And if this work threatens my sense of reality and truth, is it asking me to question my assumptions and values? Or is it promoting values that I believe are unjust? How much am I willing to question? How much am I willing to hear, perceive, and contemplate someone else’s sense of truth? What is true in my own heart? What do I really believe? What must I hold on to, and what am I willing to let go? What am I willing to change?

When we ask these questions, the idea of “like” or “taste” becomes irrelevant, even miniscule. And we go deeper into self examination, as individuals and as a society. The best art will keep us asking, questioning, challenging … long after we’ve left the room. It’s up to us to decide where to go from there.

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