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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

It's All Politics - But Make it a Small 'p' Please

I just read how one of the, shall we say, more repressive regimes in South East Asia is loosening up a little. Sadly, it seems it’s more of a ‘bread and circuses’ kind of tactic: let the young folks release some of their pent up energies on harmless things like music and dancing and they won’t worry about having no bread (or education, or future, or ...) At least that’s what a commentator in the article says.
      Anyway, there’s a surge in hip-hop places, FM radio stations are booming and there’s an annual festival of underground music, including punk bands. Sounds good on the face of it doesn’t it? Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; time will tell I suppose.
      Along with this seemingly upbeat take on the music scene, the article also told me that there had also been a little loosening up of the restrictions on political discussion. Apparently the government, normally paranoid at the mere mention of politics of any other kind than their own, now tolerates open meetings between intellectuals as well as letting smaller (and I guess less threatening) political parties to exist and meet. This is all okay, they say as long as you don’t start to criticise the government of get involved in any kind of ‘anti government’ activity. Small ‘p’ politics is okay; just stay away from the kind with the big ‘P’.
      You might, by now, be asking what’s this got to do with a writer’s life or how it involves us lucky ones who don’t have to live in that place. Well, in the same issue of the newspaper (to which I subscribe because it came at a huge discount for a set time. Sometimes it's overloading for an obsessive like me who has to read every word of interest) there was a column that asked the question, what is the value of political art?
      This piece was suggesting the possibility that overtly political art, art that tackles political issues that have a capital ‘P’, merely produces a predictable burst of outrage from the already converted. On the other hand I hope, along with the writer of that column, that art that seeks to change government policies that are unjust or art that promotes peace and so on, do have some impact on the decision makers. I do realise, however, that it is most likely a rare occurrence that any piece of art has had such an impact.
     You’re right: I could have taken the time to research this question and come up with (hopefully) some examples (please feel free to enlighten me), but really the main point I wanted to talk about here is that I think all art is political—albeit with a small ‘p’
      If an artist’s work comes from her or his genuine response to their experiences of life, whether from their family history, relationships, membership of a group or culture or any other factor that has helped shape their lives, then that work by definition is political. It says something about life and the living of it. It speaks of the complexity of the human condition.
      The last paragraph of the column really struck me and I would like to quote it in full:

‘The honesty of an experience expressed through song, through image, through film, through theatre or through dance can be the most powerful political message of all.’
Without wanting to get political about it, the writer has left one important phrase out of his otherwise very profound statement: through writing. I know, songs have words, so do films and theatre, but some of us writers write books, stories, poems, tweets, and blogs. You name it. We word workers are into everything!

But I think it’s just nice to remember we are all activists, just by virtue of being writers. It’s a good thought don’t you agree?

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