Friday, January 13, 2012

Politics, Art, and Revolution

Painting at the MFA by Hale Woodruff entitled "The Big Wind"
The sweet silence of winter solstice has returned to N.H. now the presidential primary is over, and the candidates have flown off – as suddenly as they came – like the flock of crows that stops by each morning to squabble raucously over who gets the latest tidbits in my compost pile.

Seeking to regain my balance after this political whirlwind, I head south to Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The featured exhibit, Degas and The Nude, didn’t fit my mood.  The naked women brushing their hair languidly or leisurely bathing seemed jarringly out of place in the depth of our frigid winter but, even more so, in contrast to the frenzied rhetoric of NH's just-finished primary.

I found myself more at home in the contemporary art exhibit. I was drawn to a painting done by Hale Woodruff in the 1930s, entitled Big Wind. As opposed to the serene quality of Degas’ quiet, timeless scenes, Big Wind struck me as a more fitting metaphor for our times: a chaotic world where everything is up-rooted.

As the placard by the painting explains: “This rootlessness could reflect both the economic uncertainties of the 1930s and such weather-related calamities as the tornadoes that shattered parts of the state.”

Certainly, the similarities with today are striking.  2011 was a record-setting weather disaster year in the United States with an unprecedented number of severe blizzards, floods, and deadly tornados – even in New England.

Meanwhile, as we just witnessed during the primary, the Republicans have united in generating their own “big wind,” attempting to blow us into an alternative universe where climate change does not exist or, if it does, humans are not to blame.

What planet do these candidates come from? Their position on the weather is at odds with 99% of scientists and a large majority of the American people, including here in N.H. where a recent Carsey Institute poll[1] found that 88% of us believe that climate change is real.

The Big Wind metaphor extends beyond the weather. In addition to being uprooted by climate change, we continue to be buffeted by the worst economic headwinds since the 1930s, resulting in untold suffering and a widening disconnect between the rich and the poor.
This economic disconnect is perfectly depicted in another image in the MFA’s Contemporary Art exhibit, a photograph taken for Life magazine in 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White, showing a long line of African Americans, bundled up against the cold, waiting in a bread-line in the foreground, contrasting sharply with a happy and prosperous, white American family on a huge billboard behind them with the caption There’s no way like the American Way.

That was an iconic image from the 1930s.

Today’s equivalent would be a digital image of scruffy Occupy WallStreet protesters, without jobs or opportunity, bundled up against the cold, camping out in Zuccotti Park in the shadow of Wall Street’s Midas-like riches.

Of course, today’s protestors get no sympathy from our Republican candidates who liken them to terrorists.  At least, back in the 1930s, we had a big enough contingent of progressives in this country to force the Democrats to the left to fight the good fight for poor and middle class Americans. Today we don’t have a left. Just Obama and his campaign pledge, Change You Can Believe In, which pretty much means, not much change at all.

What’s a progressive voter in N.H. supposed to do in a campaign where peace and social justice, even saving the earth, no longer seem to count?

It’s difficult to deny that we have become a nation of consumers, even in our political campaigns: forced to listen around the clock to our leading presidential candidates selling themselves like any other kitchen gadget or a window replacement.

Following lessons learned from Madison Avenue, the candidates repeat their corporate-friendly sound bites over and over again with the expectation that, eventually, their messages will be accepted as real.

The candidate becomes just another brand no different than Kleenix or Charmin while the truth becomes a quaint relic of the past.

Jean Baudrillard (the philosopher whose ideas inspired the movie, The Matrix) says this is the nature of the world we now live in: “it is no longer a question of a false representation of reality but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.”[2]

It’s all too easy to become disoriented and discouraged in this house of mirrors, especially in the aftermath of our first-in-the-nation primary, signifying, as it did, “much ado about nothing.”

To keep my sanity, I turn to the arts.  In the wise words of John Tusa: “the arts help citizens to express their needs and to clothe them in memorable forms. They offer a way of expressing ideas and wishes that ordinary politics do not allow. The arts regenerate the rundown and rehabilitate the neglected.”[3]

After enduring this primary campaign, I think we all deserve a week to regenerate and rehabilitate. After which, we must become foot soldiers in the grassroots revolution that is emerging all across America, empowering us to not only find our voice but to take peaceful, direct action to topple our corporate rulers and return the power to the 99% of the rest of us.

[1] 2011 Carsey Institute Poll: page 2.
[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation
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