Art as Resistance

“In a sick society, wellness is rebellion. Art is medicine.” – Climbing Poetree

“Any attempt, therefore, to require or suggest the certain aesthetic parameters, both in terms of subject matter and style, dishonors, I believe, the legacy of Latino and Chicano poerty’s first adherents – both living and dead. A legacy, to be sure, that involved creating art informed our community’s stories and our social and political struggles, struggles that continue today, but which are also joined by a celebration, as well as an exploration of language.” (Aragon 10).

I usually don’t think too much about art, its power or purpose. Honestly, until fairly recently I believed that art was only that which was found in a museum. Art has the ability to fuel revolutions, to challenges norms, and to uplift the people.

This blog post goes out to the artists, the dreamers, the visionaries and lovers. To those who remember that creativity is the opposite of destruction.

“ Artists are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” – Cornel West

At the Social Justice Real Justice conference at the University of Oregon in mid-February, the spoken word duo Climbing Poetree conducted a workshop on art as a means of resistance. From them I heard of the Zapantera Negra (ZPN) project. This project is a collaboration between Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and Zapatista artists. Douglas’ graphic art was featured in the newspaper The Black Panther to illustrate the harsh realities that made the revolution necessary and to “construct a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized.” His drawings depict the struggles of the poor and working class, while also maintaining the dignity and active agency of the people. The Zaptista movement, which began as an indigenous movement in Chiapas, Mexico, has been named the first post-modern revolution and is known for using an array of media outlets and information formats to increase awareness of the movement and build solidarity.

The ZPN combines the graphic imagery style of Emory Douglas and the vision of Zapatista embroiderists and painters. The project links two movements across time and space in an effort to highlight the role of art in social movements. Revolutionary art provides not only an opportunity for self-representation, but also allows for the imagining of other worlds. The art of Douglas captured the plight of poor blacks, fueling the fire of the 139,000 subscribers to The Black Panther in 1960s and 1970s. His work was a reminder of the need for revolution. However, arguably more important is the fact that Douglas’ depiction of blacks stood apart from the servant/sidekick image present in popular media. Essentially it allowed for the Black Panthers to disidentify with the representation of blacks as simply poor, disenfranchised subjects.  The collective efforts of Douglas and the Zapatistas allow for the envisioning of a movement that is not bound by the constraints of time and space, and racial category.


“…the canvas [of Latin@ art] is now larger, its border expanded to include subject matter that is not overtly political.” (Aragon 1)

“What are the possibilities of politicizing disidentification, this experience of misrecognition, this uneasy sense of standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong? It may be the affirmation of that slippage, that that the failure of identification, is itself the point of departure for a more democratizing affirmation of internal difference.” – Judith Butler

Interviewer: “Why is this Chicana poetry?”

Lorna Dee Cervantes: “It’s Chicana poetry because a Chicana wrote it.”

Throughout the course of this class we have been attempting to deconstruct the notion of latinidad. What is included in this category? As we discussed in the beginning of the class, latinidad is, in essence, Latin@ness and this is not simply language or nationality. In an attempt to put this “ness” in a box, we frequently attempt to attribute some sort of unifying characteristics to latinidad. For Latin@ artists (as well as other artists of colors) this means that their art must explicitly address race. Latin@ artists that do not adhere to this criteria are critiqued for in some way betraying latinidad (an interesting parallel to Malitzin who is despised for speaking for herself and not her people). Not only does this limit Latin@ artists, but it also limits the audience. Viewing or reading a piece allows the audience to reflect on their own responses and interpretations. A wonderful reminder came to light during Wednesday’s class when we discussed Fefu and her Friends. Maria Irene Fornes does not include the race of any of the characters in her play. In doing so, she forces the audience to make their own assumptions. Not only did this remind me that white is still the norm in my mind if race is not specified, but it also sparked again this desire to define latinidad by the presence of the identifiable trope of explicitly non-white characters. By not identifying with the notion of Latin@ness proliferated by popular media, this work illuminates the variation of what constitutes latinidad and forces the audience to sit with our discomfort in the ambiguity.

And wonder.


4 thoughts on “Art as Resistance

  1. My response is mainly to the opening of your post. I’m afraid that I’m far more cynical about art and its possibilities than you.

    You quote Cornel West, a respected modern day Marxist: “Artists are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” – Cornel West

    Much of this blog discusses Marxist Cultural theories, mainly Antonio Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony—this idea that the ruling class establishes values and behaviors of a culture and the proletariat internalizes this culture, often against their economic interests. I believe it was Lorde who coined the phrase “You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the Master’s tools”—which has always left me to wonder: if we cannot use the tools of the master and the master controls the culture—than can a truly insurgent culture exist? This concept has always seem extremely paradoxical to me and I have yet to reconcile it in my mind.

    Another Marxist that I think is often left out (unfairly) of our culture discussions is Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu complicated Gramsci’s theory with the idea of “cultural capital”—the field on which culture is mass produced. According to Bourdieu, the bourgeois class controls the field of cultural capital—or tastes— setting which artistic expressions are considered legitimate within that societal field. While Bourdieu never denies that much art is predicated on the idea of class struggle, he finds that these pieces attempt to create “solidarity… between the dominated and the dominant class,” rather than insurgency (Buğlalilar 2012, p. 14). In a capitalist system, art is created for the purpose of profit—making it necessary to pander to cultural values in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Bourdieu claims that art that is radical rarely comes into existence “as the result of some external political need, but as the result of the need to distinguish one’s self” from other pieces of art in the market (Buğlalilar 2012, p. 15). Art, when commoditized because of a capitalist system, cannot work to undermine the system under which it was created. It can only reflect the hegemonic values of that system (Buğlalilar 2012).

    I have trouble attributing higher aspirations to artists because I think the number one objective of all art is to be sold. I’m not trying to say that artists are bad people by any means. I do believe that they do valuable political work and that many enter their artistic expressions with good or even great intentions. But I think that we need to remember that their number one objective is to create a profitable commodity—not to change the world.

    I think the best example of this we’ve encountered is Richard Rodriguez in his memoir Hunger of Memory. He both uses and denies his Latin@ identity strategically to gain an audience. While he is kind of viewed as a contentious figure around here—I think we have to understand that his intentions for writing his memoir weren’t as altruistic as we would have wanted them to be. Even essentially screamed in the beginning “I’m writing this because I need money.” And he was successful, his book sold. He almost perfectly exemplified Bourdieu’s claims that art, rather than trying to undermine the system, creates solidarity between the dominated and the dominant class.

    Understanding capitalism complicates that status of Latin@ authors and artists. A part of your blog that was very clarifying for me:

    Latin@ artists that do not adhere to this criteria are critiqued for in some way betraying latinidad (an interesting parallel to Malitzin who is despised for speaking for herself and not her people). Not only does this limit Latin@ artists, but it also limits the audience.

    I would really like to continue looking not only how Latin@s actively chose to both represent their identity and at other times leave it absent. I think your use of Malitzin as someone who navigates her Latin@ identity is interesting, especially if we consider the capitalist market.
    Where you see a limited audience as being the purpose for her leaving the race of her characters out, a artists expression, I also see the possibility marketing strategy, like the one seen in Rodriguez.

    Successful artists—hell not even successful, all artists—are “sell-outs.”

  2. When I read this post (the original post, that is,) I was TOTALLY picking up what you were putting down, and the first comment made me even surer of how greatly this post was needed and how frequently people who are doing great work without great publicity are shrugged off and are not considered ‘real artists.’ Reading that all artists are sellouts and that they have no aspirations beyond the objective of getting their art sold made me think about how frequently voices of resistance, which are frequently voices of color are silenced or ignored. Considering that there are thousands of people who would consider themselves artists or something that they do ‘art,’ that do not make money from it, I think that it is absolutely preposterous and rather offensive to generalize every single artist as adhering to consumerist, capitalist ideals. Though I cannot speak for all artists, I presume that there are many people that would fall under this category of “art as resistance” who put greater value on actually being heard/seen than they do on the capital that can be gained from it. Just because they cannot quit their 9:00-5:00 jobs to pursue their art doesn’t mean that they are not ‘real’ artists, and just because artists don’t make money or particularly care about selling out shows and making money. People engaging in acts of resistance often aren’t the same folks that are making a great deal of capital. Many people who are living in the borderlands often do not even have access to the same veins of art that makes tons of money; does that make them sellouts, too? Can people that gather together on Friday nights to share their poetry be put in the same category as folks who are charging thousands of dollars per painting or charging $50,000 to do an hour long lecture in colleges?
    Art is a means of expressing oneself, or multiple selves about all sorts of topics without the use of violence that is so typically enacted to get messages across. Art is a mode of gaining freedom from systems of oppression like capitalism and consumerism, even if it is temporary in a group of strangers at an open mic. Not only is art a means of expression, but it is also a method of healing. Art helps us to reflect on the past, deal with the shit that the presence deals us, as well as bond together and come up with ways to resist and collectively work toward change in the future, if not just be together and bond together through shared experiences and the beautiful knowledge of knowing that you’re being listened to. Places where people can express their art come with them folks who are reminding artists that they have a voice, one which is valued, especially in a world where voices are frequently silenced or censored in order to make them more palatable for those (usually members of dominant society) who aren’t ready to hear them or straight up don’t want to hear them.
    I’s like to challenge the author of the comment declaring that all artists are sell-outs to call this artist a sellout, or the people who are anonymously painting murals on city walls and getting their art called ‘vandalism’ and painted over. World famous authors Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe weren’t even famous until after they’d died, and yet, I feel as though we wouldn’t hear people calling them sellouts or aiming to classify what their motives were in creating the works that are regarded as works of art and staples in literature. Even further, Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most well-known and widely celebrated painters of all time, who also suffered from epilepsy and depression, didn’t gain notoriety until after his death, and his paintings sell for multiple millions of dollars today. People don’t seem to be questioning the legitimacy of their art; how can we possibly question whether or not the people that are creating art as resistance (especially those who explicitly label their art as such) are honest in their motives? Labeling every artist as a sellout is a slap in the face to every artist that has created something meaningful and truthful to them. Whether or not they get the luxury of making money from their work is typically up to what is most appealing to people that have enough money that they are willing to spend it on.

  3. “Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.” -Albert Camus

  4. As someone who is referred to periodically as an artist, and who believes art is a social practice that can be exist independently of monetary exchanges to exist, I feel like I should contribute to this. I agree full-heartedly with the original post and second reply, but only partially with the first reply. As leannndra said in the second post “the first comment made me even surer of how greatly this post was needed and how frequently people who are doing great work without great publicity are shrugged off and are not considered ‘real artists.’” In the end, I feel the first reply to this post ignored some subtleties of the power dynamics present in the art world, especially those concerning the representation of identities that have been marginalized by the dominant culture of the United States.

    Taking a step back, I think a closer look at what is considered art should be brought into the conversation. This is a philosophical debate that many people argue about and no single answer exists. I am not going to provide a definition of art, because I feel no standardization or generalization should exist. Yet, it is fairly problematic to lump all the ‘arts’ under one category because when you do so you are comparing gallery art with social practice art, or anonymous street art with literature and this is a bit like comparing, well, apples to oranges. I do not know if this was the intent, but the first response to the original post appears to be using the term art to refer to a broad category of practices. That broad category of art contains countless, ever-increasing practices, some rooted in the exchange of money, while others are anonymous and founded on non-profit ideals, or rooted in cultural traditions. Then you enter into the question of art versus craft, an issue incredibly poignant to me as a ceramicist (a medium many in the upper echelons of the art world do not consider art). In the end, art means different things to different people and what people consider art is dependent on certain subjectivities, sensibilities, and cultural norms. Even Pierre Bourdieu defined what art is to fit his cultural milieu.These intricacies shape the discursive spaces of art, especially the enigmatic ‘art world’ which is a term referring to visual art that shows in galleries, is sellable, and the socio-economic situations that enable this situation.

    Over the summer I investigated how European history during the advent of modernism in particular created the categories of art and artist to codify cultural values of individuality, progress, rationalism, religious ideas of the sublime, and capitalist motivations. I did so to try to understand how the art world as a whole excludes certain practices, and certain groups of people from achieving the legitimacy afforded by labels like ‘art’ and ‘artist’. I was mainly focused on the repercussions for art practices rooted in the expression of marginalized identities and two visual practices in particular: queer street art (anonymous art focused on representing non-heteronormative representations of gender, sexuality, and politicking), and Native American art meant as an expression of community rather than intended to be used as commodifiable art-objects. I was interested in art that is intended to be used by communities to express certain ideas or to represent or re-imagine an identity outside of the master narrative of white, straight, American culture. I’ve argued that the enigmatic ‘art-world’ and it’s standards exclude art that is not marketable, rooted in communal value, or is possibly functional because it destabilizes the concept of art as something sellable, personal, and voyeuristic. These excluded people/practices challenge the imagined identity of the artist as a professional with a certain predilection or sensibility, and eventually even the socio-economic system that profits from the art world and it’s categories. This system is still in power today (the Guggenheim, the biennale system, the gallery system, the MFA program, etc.) and is a system that liquidates art into sums of money. This is a system dependent on capitalism, globilization, and imperial practices to be sure, but I do not think it is so simple to say all people who participate in the art system are ‘sell-outs’.

    Art in the West goes through periods of conservatism and liberalism and reflects socio-economic conditions. Yet, theorists like Christopher Reed have argued that art became a discursive space where the expression of marginalized identities could exist (discretely) in the dominant culture. In particular, in the amazing book Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, Reed demonstrates how the construction of the concept of art, artist, individualism, and codification of homosexuality developed concurrently and were sometimes linked. In this way, art became a space for a marginalized identity to not only be expressed, but also be re-presented outside of the master narrative. In a sense, you have art expressing concepts that go outside the constrictions and expectations of dominant culture, and these subversive ideas are encountered within a legitimized space within the dominant culture. This is an important parallel to the subject of our class, where we are exploring the expression of latinid@des that are expressed within the master narrative of the United States. We are exploring the ways that these expressions of latinid@des challenge representations created by the master narratives and these expressions are often afforded a space within the ‘art’ world to be expressed. So the art world may be fueled by the exchange of money, but it creates a platform for people on the margins (any person not cisgender male, white, Christian) to vocalize what would normally be ignored in other spaces of culture. The fact that this space is fueled by money is both problematic and non-problematic, in my opinion. On one hand there is the depressing realities of the socio-economic system that establishes the art world as an always-already biased zone seeking to represent what is profitable and will reproduce certain principles of power, but on the other hand there are people being afforded the ability to find value in the expression, and representing of their identities. This is a space of empowerment that can give many people a voice that would be denied elsewhere. In this way, I feel myself agreeing more so with the original post and the second responder than the first responder to the original post.

    Some art may exist within the limits of capitalistic society (and what we know as art may even be dependent on capitalism) but artists are able to place values in expressions of identities that have been devalued elsewhere. Going beyond this, there is art that is not based on the exchange of money, there is art that is based in social practice, and there is art that is solely about the expression of communal ideas, goals, or hopes. Even in the ‘art-world’ what is considered art is a permeable, vague space that is constantly being contested. The culture wars of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s were incredibly concerned with the censorship of what artists produced and this demonstrates the anxieties that dominant culture has toward art as a powerful site of expression. During this period members of the dominant culture of the United States attempted to end the funding of art that expressed ‘deviant’ or ‘non-aesthetic’ or ‘sexual’ ideas, a type of art that was produced mostly by artists from minority identities (suspicious? I think so). In the end, I feel that if artists simply sell out and art became devoid of any subversive potential, then the battle to control what is art would not exist. Even some of the most profitable (or big-named (the two are not always dependent)) artists from a minority identity (Warhol, Kara Walker, González-Torres, Catherine Opie) are allowed to represent themselves, the world, or others how they want to and are given agency they might be deprived elsewhere, and that in itself is potentially subversive in a society that taught them to devalue aspects of their identity. Through art, artists of marginalized identities are able to re-invest with value what the dominant culture of the United States has devalued. This is an act of resistiance. A simple analysis of monetary exchanges might miss these acts of empowerment, which exist in every type of the many practices of art.

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