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« on: December 14, 2004, 02:38:20 PM »

Art At War: Against Cultural Imperialism

by Ewuare Osayande

What does it mean to create poetry in a time of war? What does it mean to create any art during a time when the United States, the sole superpower on the planet, is primed to do what Nazi Germany wished it could have done? For one, it means to create at a time when masses of people, guilty of no crime, unless it is a crime to be poor and oppressed, are being slaughtered in the streets, when bombs rain down death daily. It means to create art when life literally hangs in the balance, when so many are relying on others they may never see to insure their survival. We, who reside in the belly of this beast, are those others.

In this climate of anger and fear the question becomes: Where are your allegiances? And can we see those allegiances in your art?

If you think that you can avoid having an allegiance, taking a side, then you have done so even in your attempt not to. Those that refuse to take sides are giving their power over to those who are in power. And if those who are in power are oppressive, then you, by your silence or loud noise of saying nothingness, showcase your allegiance in clear sight and signal.

We live in a time of mass confusion. This confusion has become a commodity created by those in power to keep the public in a state of disarray, for in that state the people cannot organize to bring down the enemy because they don’t know who the real enemy is. Is Bin Laden the enemy? Al Qaeda?  Or is it Saddam Hussein? Could it be Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney? Or maybe the CIA? Or are they all the same? Artists that refuse to inform and help bring clarity in this period of paranoia and state-endorsed frenzy are working on behalf of those that are creating and profiting from the confusion. And to think, they are not even getting paid for it.

Before the artist can bring clarity, they first must be clear and too many of us artists are not clear at all. So many of us claim disdain for the mainstream, while we secretly long to be discovered by Hollywood, Broadway or MTV, or any of its colored extensions. And as if to justify our contradictory desires, we’ve got artists confused to the point that they think they are revolutionary, and when asked what makes them or their art revolutionary, their response is that they got to say their political poem on MTV or HBO. The fact is that being granted an opportunity to say your poem on nationwide television does not make you revolutionary. The reason lies in understanding that the very corporations that sponsored your five minutes of fame are the very capitalist institutions that profit from our oppression in the first place! Capitalism doesn’t care if you cry or complain about how bad it is. It will put you on the stage and give you pennies while it takes the millions it earns from your image reproduced in a number of mediums for years to come to the bank, and you will still be on the street ranting on and on about how bad the system is. Capitalism functions to profit. It doesn’t have a heart to be assuaged or made to feel guilt. It has no conscience.  It cannot be talked out of its machinations. It functions to exploit. It functions to oppress. The degree you are complicit with it, is the degree that you will be oppressed by it.

Given this contradictory position, there is no cultural movement to change our society. Too many are too busy trying to get in, to be seen, to be heard. “Def Poetry Jam” ain’t revolutionary. It is a show. It is not the bastion of free speech that many folk try to claim either. It is taped and edited. The producers decide what poets will appear and which of the poems they taped will be aired. It is not as democratic as aspiring artists might want to believe. Those who make the final decisions are making those decisions in the editing room, and their motivation is not social progress. Their primary motivation is to promote the corporation(s) that sponsors the program. We all know that Hip Hop got got by the corporate elite awhile ago. Spoken Word is on the take as we speak. We are following hustlers and con-artists that have taken our art and handed it right over to the bourgeoisie. They have handed our culture right into the hands of a few individuals whose main interest is in maximizing profit at the expense of the people. And now we run in after them and call that progress. But what is progress? And for whom? It can’t be for the people when they are still oppressed. It can’t be progress for the people when they are still being locked up in prison at record numbers, when they are still being fired at ever increasing rates, when they are still having their civil, human and natural rights robbed from them right under their eyes.

Our oppressors are not scared of us when they see us in these venues. Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry on Broadway is another good example of this. The elites that come to see the show are not coming to have their notion of the world troubled. And the poets who appeared in the Broadway production knew this and responded accordingly as evidenced by the testimony of Staceyann Chin in an article she wrote for Black Issues Book Review  (May/April 2004): “The show became everything. I began a quiet that spread from my fingers to my tongue. I worried about what my cannonball of a mouth might do to the show. I stopped saying Bush was a spawn of the Devil. I toned down my lesbian self for the larger, more conservative media audiences.”

Def Poetry Jam on Broadway is not the longed-for site of radical discourse. It is a site where elites and their friends come to have a good time. And when they leave, they are not troubled. They are on the cell phone calling their accountant to see how their stocks are doing on Wall Street. Just like whites who pay money out of the surplus of their incomes to watch Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle call them crackers and racists. Their response is not to be angry or even to feel guilt but to giggle. They’re not scared. They are laughing at them(selves). Why? Cause it is a joke. It’s not supposed to be taken seriously.

Only action is taken seriously. It was only when Black folks in Montgomery, Alabama decided to take action and boycott the bus company that they got the change they were seeking. Not singing, praying or pleading but organized action. Boycott. Hit them where it hurts. How many artists are willing to boycott the corporate elite? How many artists are willing to boycott the exploitation of poor women and women and men of color? Those who organized themselves in Montgomery made a conscious decision to boycott the buses, to stay out of the public transportation system. They set up car pools and the like as a functional alternative. How many of us are willing to stay out the studios of the mainstream media? Stop allowing ourselves and our art to be exploited by the cultural imperialists and start to create a true alternative, one that actually resists the superstructure and its enticements.

When Amiri Baraka wrote and made public his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” he was attacked by the capitalist state. They tried to oust him from his post as Poet Laureate of the state of New Jersey. He wasn’t rewarded by the reactionary forces that perpetuate the oppression he exposes in the poem. He was attacked. Called a liar. Demonized. Although his words and ideas are being validated with each new day as the truth is slowly coming to light. His experience serves as an example for us and should have been a catalyst for us to organize. When will we realize that we do not create art for the applause of our oppressors? As Baraka has stated himself, “It is a new world we want to create, not an endowed chair in the concentration camp.” Yet too many of us are too invested in such endowments and masquerade that desire as wanting to change the world. No, you just want to change your status in the world.

But understand this: Most of the world’s singers, actors, dancers, writers, poets and painters aren’t creating art but are working somewhere in a field or a factory, in a plant or on a plantation, or they are in prison or dead in the grave. These people will never be seen on stage, will never record a CD or get a film made, but their voices are as valid as any of ours, if not more so. But due to the economic reality the world is in, due to the fact that the natural resources of their land and their labor has been stolen, they are doomed to a life of servitude and peasantry and slavery. We live a life of extreme luxury when compared to that reality. Our art, if it is to be functional and purposeful in the real world must be accountable to the masses of people who will never have the same opportunity to speak their truth in defiance of those who dominate them. What we do, whether we fight on their behalf or not, is what makes our art relevant or makes us a contradiction as we complain about not getting grants from philanthropic filth, the very corporate and governmental funders that profit from the poverty around the world. Where do you think the surplus comes from?

The art that is most needed in a time of war is an art that is revolutionary. An art that recognizes the reality of war for what it is, how it decimates whole peoples, vanquishes hope and rapes them of their capacity to envision a future of possibility, peace and prosperity. We have to fight that. Not enough to call for peace then fail to understand and address why peace is not present as though to simply shout “Peace” is going to make it come. We have to aim our art at the very heart of the beast and shoot! Speak the truth! Expose the emperor’s ugly nakedness so that the people will see that they have the power, not him. That is our purpose when we are clear. Not stuck in some abstraction, nursing some sordid desire to escape. Those artists that use their art not to engage the reality of the present world but to escape it are not aiding but abetting our inability to reach the freedom the world seeks. Their escapist art is like a drug. But even the worst addict will tell you that once the hit has worn off, you realize that you still here and you got to expend all your energy searching for your next hit. You never arrive at nirvana. You are always in search of it. Escapism has no end. The perpetual pathology of apathetic art is pathetic.

The people are already being fed a daily diet of escapism and abstraction every time they turn on the TV, the radio, every time they go to the movies. So we need art that will push people out of our collective slumber. Out of our apathy. Out of our sense of powerlessness. We can change our reality only when we are willing to come face to face with it. We have to begin to redefine the world in a way that gives us new vision, new solutions. That requires a revolutionary aesthetic. A revolutionary means of identifying and defining beauty. Not some prosthetic aesthetic – a dangling fake appendage to an imperialist culture that seeks only one purpose – to eat the world whole and all life within it. There is nothing beautiful about the Bush administration. There is no beauty in lies. Whatever is beautiful is what we create by confronting our reality with truth. They say the first casualty of war is the truth. We must resurrect truth with our words and images and defy those that would deny us our voice. Our first effort if we are against war is to get the warmongers out office. To get the ugly white lie out of power. We must create resistance and a new vision of the world that can be made real in our time. That requires organized action.

As Angela Davis has written, “Progressive and revolutionary art is inconceivable outside the context of political movements for radical change….  Cultural workers must thus be concerned not only with the creation of progressive art, but must be actively involved in the organization of people’s political movements.”

Poetry is not a panacea. It is creative expression first and last. It is what you express that matters. It’s what you express that makes your poetry, your song, your painting meaningful in the end. In the end, art at its highest desire is in pursuit of a better world. In order for our art to be a part of that process, it must work toward the benefit of the masses, which are oppressed by imperialism, war and poverty. Not the elite few who rule by bombs and lies, guns and pink-slips.

What we do on the behalf of the world’s masses is what will last. In the end our art must engage the world as it is, not just to be seen or heard, but to change it for the benefit of the world’s betterment.

Ewuare Osayande is a political activist, poet and author of more than eleven books including his latest works Black Anti-Ballistic Missives: Resisting War/Resisting Racism and Misogyny and the Emcee: Exposing the Exploitation of Black Women in Hip Hop. He resides in Philadelphia, PA where he is the co-founder of POWER, a grassroots initiative that educates and empowers participants to fight and resist oppression. He can be contacted at
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« Reply #1 on: July 31, 2005, 01:59:13 PM »

In the spirit of Art At War......

Punk Planet: Notes From Underground
Interview by Kari Lydersen
January, 2003
"Wherever I go I get the biggest drum I can find," says artist Eric Drooker. "I like to be out there making a lot of noise."

"Noise" doesn't just refer to the sound that comes from a drum for Drooker. It refers to his images of snarling police dogs, oppressed homeless people, brave squatters, beautiful women and vicious law enforcement officers that pop up in cities across the country on posters, fliers, stencils, and even on magazine covers.

A lifelong resident of Manhattan's Lower East Side until his recent move to San Francisco, Drooker says he is "obsessed" with fighting police brutality, displacement, "economic cleansing," the prison industrial complex, and other political issues.

During his long involvement in the anti-gentrification battles in the Lower East Side, Drooker's artwork was used as a form of communication and inspiration. The '80s and early '90s on the Lower East Side could be considered one of the defining battles against gentrification in the country, including a bloody struggle for control of Tompkins Square Park, a long-time refuge for the homeless, street artists, and musicians which was cleared out and fenced off at the behest of developers. Drooker's work was used in posters, fliers, zines, and newsletters to inform people about the underground battles going on between the haves and have-nots and to stir them to action.

Along with a pervasive presence in New York City, Drooker's work has popped up on lampposts and walls around the world, in zines across the country and in community and non-profit groups' fliers and newsletters. His artwork has graced album covers of bands both tiny and huge and he has been featured in magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Spin, and Maximum Rock'n'Roll. He has also had a number of books published, including the seminal graphic novel Flood! A Novel in Pictures.

In late 2002 he completed a book tour for his latest work, Blood Song: A Silent Ballad and he continues his art and activism from the Bay Area.

In a nutshell what is the theme of Blood Song? How is this different from your past novel in pictures, Flood!?

The theme of my latest book is global expansion run amok--with its techno-economic and military forces on a warpath of self-destruction, all seen through the eyes of a young girl. It's a coming of age story, told without words, relying solely on pictures to tell the tale. FLOOD! was my first attempt at telling a story by purely visual means. Whereas FLOOD! was largely autobiographical, about a city dweller with his cat living in the last days of the 20th century, Blood Song is about a girl and her dog living in the jungle, in an uncertain time. In the book's opening pages, we follow the girl going down to the river, to fetch some water. When she discovers blood flowing between her legs, we realize that she is no longer a girl--but a young woman who is about to embark on an epic journey. Upon her return home, she notices helicopters landing in her village, and, to her horror, witnesses the massacre of her family, and the immolation of her home. She is chased through the jungle by soldiers, but manages to outrun them. At the edge of the forest, she finds a small rowboat in which she escapes from her native island--which goes up in flames--and rows across the ocean...ultimately landing on the shores of a 21st Century metropolis.

How does this fit into globalization, the war on terrorism and US intervention in Latin America?

"Globalization" is really just a modern buzzword for good old-fashioned imperialism. It's simply the continued theft of the world's raw materials and labor by a minority of wealthy, predominantly European nation-states. In Blood Song, we follow the adventures of an indigenous woman through her native landscape, a tropical landscape, which is soon over-run by foreign interests, who eventually cut down every tree in the forest. Since no words are used, we aren't quite certain where in the world we are. Is this Vietnam or Indonesia? It could well be somewhere in Latin America, with its ever-present death squads terrorizing the peasant population. The question is: Who's arming and training these paramilitary death squads? Throughout the last century, the US government has supported some of the world's most brutal dictatorships, in the name of "fighting communism at all costs." Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more recently of the Twin Towers, the mission has shifted to "fighting terrorism at all costs."

What role do you think the artist has in society, and particularly right now, in the midst of the war on terrorism and imminent war with Iraq?

The artist's role in society is a subtle one. Artists possess the ability to perceive reality in ways that most people are oblivious. Artists are analytical by nature. They see the world with a special kind of x-ray vision, which enables them to construct aesthetic works, layer by layer. I feel that art is much more than self-expression, but is an actual language--a universal language with which one can communicate. The simple act of self-expression as an end in itself, like jerking off--a pleasurable, yet temporary relief of pressure--is ultimately unsatisfying. Its too solitary, too self-absorbed. Great art communicates to the masses, utilizing the vivid details of common experience, and transforms them--condenses them--into works which enable people to see through society's endless layers of bullshit: its lies, obfuscations, official myths, propaganda. Art cuts to the quick. It cuts to the chase. The truth can be funny as hell, and make you laugh out loud; but it can also make you cry like a baby . . . it's beautiful.

The technique you used to create the images in Blood Song is similar to your other work--and wholly unique in its own right. How do you make your work?

All of the images in Blood Song were created on scratchboard, a similar technique to woodcut or linocut. The ink is already on the board, and you are actually removing it with a blade. It's a type of engraving process, which enables the artist to cut clean, sharp, angular marks directly, without having to print backwards as in most graphic techniques--like etching, lithography, or woodcut. I first began working in scratchboard years back, when I was creating editorial illustrations and political cartoons for various newspapers. Scratchboard drawings have a strong, graphic quality which always reproduces well on cheap newsprint--even when reduced down to postage stamp size. Also, the tactile and visceral sensation of drawing with a knife has always appealed to me. In Blood Song, I then added soft layers of watercolor on top of the hard, jagged marks. This painted layer gives the book its ethereal, mist-infused atmosphere.

You've moved to the Bay Area after a lifetime in New York City. What similarities and differences have you seen between daily life and political issues going on in those two places?

Both New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area are the most politically progressive regions in the US. I travel back and forth frequently, always trying to keep one foot planted on either coast. Both places have long traditions of social activism, labor struggles, and, of course, artistic innovation. New York is on a vastly larger scale, obviously--nothing can begin to compare to the non-stop, frenetic quality of New York. Which is why I've finally set up my studio here in Berkeley. It's got a slower pace and more oxygen. I like oxygen. Growing up on Manhattan Island felt like growing up in a can of sardines--claustrophobic, metallic, oily, too much salt! Presently, the Bay Area is in the vanguard of the anti-war movement. Local elected officials have boldly run on progressive, anti-militarist platforms, and were just re-elected by a landslide. Over 100,000 marched in San Francisco last month, chanting "No Blood for Oil!"

Your art has always been connected with on-the-streets activism. In fact, your book Street Posters & Ballads was intended to be used as sort of a toolkit for making stickers and posters for progressive event organizing. What made you decide to do that?

Street Posters & Ballads was an anthology of political graphics I'd originally created as poster art, which were plastered on walls throughout my neighborhood--the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I decided to publish the collection as a book after realizing that virtually all of the images transcended the local issues I had been illustrating: real estate speculation, AIDS, police brutality, jail solidarity and organized resistance. They were familiar scenarios in cities across the US.

The concept of the book was to share these hard-hitting graphics with activists throughout the country, so they could be freely reproduced, without any hassle or concern over copyright. My policy is spelled out in the book's copyright page: "Progressive, non-profit, activist groups may freely lift, reproduce and disseminate contents as they see fit . . . Status quo opportunists who reproduce contents without permission will get their asses sued off." With the advent of the World Wide Web, a lot of my work is now on line, much of it in high-resolution, print-quality form, for easy downloading by activists . The site has been a great resource; I see my images used all over the world as posters, fliers, and in underground publications.

I think part of why your work is easily appropriated and re-contextualized by activists is because it is able to be so evocative without using words.

Pictures are the earliest form of writing. As a species, we've been at it for over 40,000 years! Images speak to us on a primal level. We view and interpret them as children, long before society teaches us how to read and write. They are our native tongue. As an image-maker, I've set out to create epic tales, adventure stories, full-length modern novels--written in the ancient language of pictures. My books can be "read" by anyone, regardless of age or background. There's no language barrier.

How would you describe the state of political public art today?

I've seen a dramatic shrinkage of public space in our cities in recent decades. In New York and San Francisco, which have long, vibrant traditions of public gatherings and street oratory, there has been a gradual, yet persistent, crackdown on political and cultural expression. Parks are closed at night and rigorously curfewed. People congregating in groups are ordered to "break it up" and "keep moving" by the police. More and more, cities are taking on the appearance of shopping malls and yuppie theme parks. The vibe is unmistakably: "If you don't got the bucks, Beat it!"

Socially-conscious artists continue, however, to make their voices heard, and street posters and stencils continue to be a viable means of communicating on lamp posts and walls from coast to coast . . . Of course, we need more, much more enlightened art, with thought-provoking content out there. Infinitely more! Right now, all I see are occasional sparks of consciousness, here and there.

I've long maintained that actually, we are surrounded by political art everywhere we look. Don't forget: advertising billboards, signs and commercials, which bombard us at every turn were all designed by artists who went to art school. But what is the political message of all this art? Consume . . . Be Cool . . . Aloof . . . Be Sexy . . . Self-Obsessed . . . Get Drunk! Creative people need to question how they may be prostituting their talents--and who their pimp is.

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