An Aesthetics of Overcoming
The prompt asked me to reflect on two very basic questions about the state of socially engaged art: where we are, and what we need. I want to start by honoring the vastness of this. I promise in this writing not to write what I always write. I promise to roam and indulge.
This part is important because roaming and indulgence is how Open Engagement has tended to work for me. The value OE has provided me over many years has been exactly this kind of opportunity to shift my thinking from strategic to existential, hierarchical to horizontal. To take risks.
In the last year of OE, and my last contribution to it, I can honor OE and its effect on me by writing the way OE makes me think and feel. OE is a permissive space. So I can give myself permission to go on a more speculative, personal journey about the very things I am tasked with making relatively concrete, small-bore decisions about every day.
Where are we?
We are in a moment in which cultural power is being expressed intensely.
For one thing, a B-list reality TV celebrity is running the United States, mostly by raging on Twitter. I’m not going to address how this is working out because I’m supposed to write a short essay and I do think we have good reasons to stay positive, if not optimistic. What I think is relevant the way 45 is effectively wielding cultural power—stoking white identity politics, building on celebrity, pushing the envelope of what’s possible and permissible by shifting our emotional response to news and social media. It’s relevant that this aggressive display of cultural power feels very much in our faces right now, and has concrete effects on people’s lives. It’s not “just” tweets. It’s a legitimate threat. Culture is powerful—we are feeling it as a weapon.
This wielding of cultural power isn’t just something that’s being done to us. I think we are all more interested in wielding it. There’s a lot of activist and movement energy, the NFL has become a site of social conscience, heads are rolling in Hollywood. There’s some serious power exchange going on, and I believe in a lot of it. But at the same time, I’m concerned about the dualistic and partisan nature of all this activity, and wonder whether we might do something more interesting with power than simply pass it, more or less willingly, from one tribe to another.
It’s a crazy-feeling moment, and I don’t know what you’re doing in response, but I’ve been carefully tending my own relationships. It’s an accessible way to change my world, so that it’s less and less like the rest of the world. There is no relationship that is free of the power dynamics, interdependencies, and transactions that are being so intensely expressed right now. I can’t make them go away, but I can make my dynamics, interdependencies, and transactions more intentional and loving.
In this work, I’m discovering that attending to relationships does not scale, exactly, but it does network in a way that satisfies my sense of ambition. How I approach difficulty with my lover directly informs the way I will treat my employees, the artists I work with, and will also form the basis for my relationship with the chair of my board. Compassion begets more compassion, makes an increasingly compassionate system. The results I am just barely starting to get from this work on my own relationships makes me believe that Ghandi quote for the first time in my life—the one in which he says that you have to be the change you want to make in the world.
This year or so of considered attention to how I handle my own relationships has sharpened my understanding of what art has to offer this moment. The more attention I pay to my own relationships, the more I see how much of the relating I do with others relies on a set of undeclared, culturally programmed assumptions about power that take more than negating or dismantling. They don’t go anywhere until a conscious, positive alternative is co-created.
I can be more specific about this. Winning in a relationship is a really good example. Do you know how hard it is to honestly and truly give up winning in a relationship? For me anyway? There is no winner and no loser most in most interactions. But I can’t help myself. The notion that I am either winning or losing is a very strong assumption I have about power—I have a lot of images and myths about it. So when I get threatened in any way, I get protective, combative, and judgmental in an effort to win, and not lose.
I can notice this, and argue with it—dismantle the logic of it. But it doesn’t change until I painstakingly create a conscious alternative to winning and losing in full collaboration with a partner. Winning or losing goes away slowly, only when it is replaced by a new set of myths and images about sharing. These new myths and images take trust, time, and tremendous courage to create.
This is art. Creating a new way of being that changes how we wield power is art. I knew that intellectually and acted as an advocate for this idea before everything went all sideways last November, but now I am incorporating it as a practice, in my own little way, into my life. And I have to say, admiring this thing art can do is really different than enacting it. My small contribution to this art—carefully building better relationships with a handful of people—is a tedious, scary, incremental process that I lose and regain faith about on a daily basis. It’s also bringing me a lot of joy.
This contribution is changing my relationship to my own work. I am more connected to the stakes artists are working with, and this is making me less inclined to come at social practice projects with a detached or analytical “art” mindset. When I work with artists, I’m finding myself increasingly…
Vulnerable, even. I’m more vulnerable to the projects I am working with because I am more openly striving toward what some of them are striving toward. I am paying a different kind of attention to the intentional communities and life-practices artists are making that decenter the individual, and reframe power and resistance in shared, non-dualistic terms. And I’m more attached to the way this art thrives on difficulty, inserts itself into complex political situations, and builds trust incrementally, or patiently injects doses of compassion into institutional settings that long for it.
In some ways this vulnerability is making me act less like an arts administrator and more like a creative person who is craving models, inspiration, and affinity at a powerfully hard moment. The questions I ask artists are changing. I’m less interested in the big ideas and more interested in craft. I want to know the specific leadership decisions artists are making, how they manage people and relationships on a practical level, how much they are sacrificing, how they feel about that, and the work they are doing on themselves in order to make the kinds of changes they want to see in the world. I’m finding that these sorts of questions yield richly textured conversations about whether artists need mission statements; how values become shared; experiences with non-violent communication workshops, anti-racism training, and mediation classes; spirituality; meditation and other regular practices; the history of religion; the health and wholeness of the artist; how to make life choices when you’re an artist; how art and life feel like they compete with one another when they actually can’t; how we all grew up; and, of course, therapy.
I like these conversations. They are so whole. So full of life.
What We Need
As I reflect on my own little project and these great conversations I have been having, I am reminded of Hakim Bey’s assertion that art is all too often death-reproducing and death-affirming, and that the power derived from that death obsession is mere “smartness.” And I’m reminded of his frenzied call to “build an aesthetic on the overcoming [of death], rather than the fear.”
It is an appropriate moment to boldly choose between an aesthetic that morbidly fetishizes (and then preys upon) our fear, and an aesthetic that embodies and enacts the overcoming of that fear. And I think it’s worth saying that overcoming is totally different than resistance. It feels like most of the world is saying no to this moment, pushing against it. I certainly empathize with why. There is certainly so much to say no to right now. But pushing and resistance—these are strength contests that ultimately affirm the idea that there is a winner and a loser. What if we can get somewhere far more just, more loving, and more interesting if we can figure out how to be brave enough to stop exchanging power, and instead change how we wield power together?
An aesthetics of overcoming would let this moment in, accept it completely, and allow it to change everything except our compassion, our values. Our love.
I know. It’s a tall order. It would require a lot of trust, and that is a commodity that is in very short supply right now. And I can admit that all this talk of love absolutely offends my own need for “smartness.” But if I am going to take a risk in this space, and honor the shift from strategic to existential that I love OE for, then I’ve got no choice but to stick to my guns.
We need this.
I look at the artists I partner with, and my own life, and I see that building the trust we need requires superhuman patience. How patient are going to have to be, and how utterly wrong is that patience going to feel in this moment of genuine urgency?
While this trust is slowly building, how are we going to find the courage to choose an aesthetics of overcoming anyway?
How do we build this trust and really work together when some of us are so much more threatened than others by this thing we have to overcome? How do we accept how slow, awkward, painful, and necessary the work of building trust across the unique way race and class inform one another in America really is? I grew up relatively close to the Mexican border, in an openly racist environment, surrounded by a colonial version of the white identity politics that are dominating our politics right now. And you know, it’s very obviously a classist trick, intended to separate me and my tribe from the people of color in my own community who share my economic fate. I question the power of identity politics to bring us together and am motivated to overcome in large part because this is where I came from. But one of the first things an actual aesthetic of overcoming needs is me and folks like me recognizing that this is all very easy for me to say because I don’t feel particularly unsafe; that this thing that looks like a political trick to me looks more like deportation, incarceration, and getting murdered by the police to the very folks I am trying to connect with—that I do not understand, and that we don’t go anywhere together until there is understanding, and until those who legitimately feel unsafe simply feel more safe.
Among other things, this boils down to what we do with privilege. How do I make my relative privilege more of a shared resource? How can those of us with more privilege and safety listen to, and move at the pace and depth of, and actively protect, the most vulnerable among us, so we aren’t forcing an overcoming on a bunch of people in a misguided effort to do what we think is the right thing?
It’s also about how love is expressed and cultivated in our culture. We can’t see so much of the violence that we live with because it is normalized. We don’t quite have enough loving behavior to throw the violent behavior into high contrast. What parts of our souls and psyches must we care for in order to overcome instead of resist? What does that care taking look and feel like at work, in a hospital, in a prison? We are going to have to love one another so much more openly, and so much more, in big ways and small. What is our personal commitment to this? What are the cultural opportunities to do that loving? Who are we going to have to love that doesn’t feel lovable right now? How are we going to reach beyond our tribes?
Deborah Fisher is a creative leader and the founding Executive Director of A Blade of Grass. She advocates for artists working in the expanded field, and is an avid student of the divinatory arts and a first degree black belt in aikido. She serves on the board of the Center for Artistic Activism.