Thursday, April 27, 2006

Political, Social, and Art Realities: Three Interrelated Worlds that are Out of Touch with One Another

“Today, under George W. Bush, there are two
Americas, not one: One America that does the
work, another that reaps the reward. One
America that pays the taxes, another America
that gets the tax breaks. One America –
middle-class America – whose needs Washington
has long forgotten, another America –
narrow-interest America – whose every wish is
Washington’s command. One America that is
struggling to get by, another America that buy
anything it wants, even a Congress and a
President.”
-John Edwards, 2004 Presidential primary campaign

In his 2003 primary campaign Edwards was trying to address the Political Reality that America is a land divided between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, but the speech neglects to accurately represent the current Social Reality. The Social Reality of America is that the “have-nots” are not the middle-class who pay taxes, but the lower class that cannot afford to feed their families. This omission illustrates the fact that there is a large divide that has developed between political factions, and the nation they were elected to represent. Because of their relationship to political issues artists too are often inclined to make the same omissions. The art world, like its political counterpart, is preoccupied with profitability; which occurs at the expense of the social issues they claim to be advocating.
A big part of this division is due to the separation of politicians from the social status of many of those they represent; Edwards himself made millions of dollars as a trial lawyer. He is not alone in this societal position though, most of the members of both parties would be classified as his “narrow-interest” America. Part of the function of the parties is to create this divide, while at the same time making it seem as if it is united with Americans especially those in need. This economic tie is what binds the two parties together; despite their many claims of opposition. James Madison touched on this divide in The Federalist , Number 10,
“But the most common and durable source of
factions has been the various and unequal
distribution of property. Those who hold and
those who are without property have ever
formed distinct interests in society... interests,
grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and
divide them into different classes, actuated by
different sentiments and views.”

The infighting and favor swapping that occurs, between the two factions, in Washington builds a wall of opacity that breeds corruption; and separates the politicians from those who elected them. Even those representatives who do come from economically depressed backgrounds soon become enmeshed in party politics. The fact is that rank and file members of Congress make $165,200 while leadership positions make up to $212,100 a year , and they spend the majority of the year raising millions more for future campaigns. These salaries are more than three and a half times the median American income, and this, in most cases, alters their relationship to those that elected them to office based on their background.
So complex and developed is this Political Reality that it is often, mistakenly, represented as being a Social Reality. This is usually the case when artists, who are considered socially conscious, take up political topics. Part of the contemporary reason for this is the political marginalization of the arts, even though the arts are usually sighted as being the cultural foundation of civilized society throughout history. Since the cutting of NEA grants to individual artists in 1989, many artists and arts groups have been preoccupied with the Political Reality and the ramifications of these politics. By presenting the visual, performative, or audio evidence of these ramifications within the context of the art world, most of their potential political impact is lost. The insular nature of many art institutions is part of the problem with many types of this presentation, because they lack public visibility and have a limited audience size. Another reason that the size of the audience is limited is that, in many cases, contemporary art’s representations of political actions can be obscure or shocking making it difficult for many Americans to understand. The lack of arts education in American schools adds to this by making it difficult for many Americans to relate to art. It is in part, this inability to relate to or see the value in art that enables it to be marginalized by politicians.
The actual Social Realities of America are quite different than the picture often painted by politicians. In the land of opportunity it is hard to imagine that so many could have so little. As the excerpt from John Edwards’ speech illustrates though, it is the people with the least that are ignored by those with the most. This is a very deliberate political maneuver by politicians; because they believe that many of these people, who are struggling to survive, will most likely not vote. In political terms this then means that they don’t count. It is this belief that allows Edwards and other politicians as well to think that there are two Americas, the middle-class and the upper class. Part of American social reality is that the nation is no more divided along these socioeconomic lines today than it was when Madison published his book of The Federalist papers. Just as there are third-class citizens, who are thought of as politically insignificant, today, there were also people who had no say in the way the government operated in 1788 . But, it is this view of exclusion that currently leads to poor voter turn out among America’s low-income citizens, as Howard Zinn points out in his book A People’s History of the United States,
“It was predictable, given the unity of both
major parties around class issues, and the
barriers put up against any third-party
candidate, that half the country, mostly at
lower-income levels, and unenthusiastic
about either major party, would not even
vote.”

These citizens feel that what politicians do will not impact their daily lives. This feeling is amplified when the number of Americans living in poverty or are uninsured continually increase, year to year. When numbers are used to describe this reality their significance is diminished because they become a faceless mass, and are no longer treated as individuals that are affected by the actions of others.
This mutual marginalization and mistrust leads to a cycle that is detrimental to the very foundation of government, culture, and society. In order to reconcile these intertwined spheres there needs to be an acknowledgement from each that they are reliant on one another, in someway. For this to happen an intersection between all three must occur. Within this interaction a discussion can begin to develop, so that questions about the mythologies and misunderstandings of each can be addressed. It is through this discussion and debate that the foundation of a strong and open society is built. This will yield a closely-knit community, which is essential to the prosperity of a Republic.

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