Sunday, September 27, 2009

Active Resistance to Propaganda

Several years ago, the great Dame Vivienne Westwood began forming ideas about art and culture which would eventually become a “movement” that she has called Active Resistance to Propaganda.

She has written a manifesto which is viewable on the website.

Although I may not agree with every point she makes (as much as she loathes contemporary and conceptual art, I like it and find it engaging, interesting and worthwhile), the basic premise of Active Resistance to Propaganda is one I agree with (and have for many years, long before she articulated such ideas) and which makes tremendous sense. She maintains that in the pursuit of art, the art lover becomes resistant to propaganda; that culture is the antidote to propaganda. I couldn’t agree more. This is why repressive regimes always try to control the arts; the arts are dangerous because they allow—no, they encourage people to think for themselves, to form their own opinions, reactions and beliefs.
By “propaganda,” Westwood of course means the “non-stop distraction” (as she cites from Aldous Huxley’s “Three Evils”), the constant barrage of empty, pre-packaged, pre-digested, middle-of-the-road crap; a “fast food”/ “big box store” mentality. Contemporary art and culture have been “kidnapped by business” as she told The Guardian in a 2007 interview.

That is absolutely correct. I am constantly disappointed at how little people actually know, and at how very little curiosity people show not just in relation to cultures and ways other than their own, but in relation to their OWN culture. I have spoken to many adults who look at me blankly if I mention names like Benny Goodman, Willa Cather or Rene Magritte. If it isn’t at Costco, Home Depot, or Target, if it isn’t in the tabloid papers or on the Top 40, if it isn't a viral video on the internet, if it didn’t happen in their own brief attention span, they don’t know it.

This reminds me of a fabulous passage from the course guide for the first college I went to. In the forward to the section of English classes was this beautifully concise idea:

“Studying English means reading literature, means growing to understand what people in our own and other cultures think and feel, have thought and felt, about everything that human beings experience. People who read literature become cultivated generalists in a market of increasingly specialized technicians. As enlightened employers have long recognized, such people bring more substance to any occupation; they are more broadly knowledgeable, more flexible, more inventive, better able to consider a wide range of ideas and responses than are people trained to perform specific tasks.
The personal power and pleasure of being able to analyze and interpret raw events, of being able to live vicariously many lives in diverse societies at historical periods besides our own, can hardly be exaggerated. Reading literature dramatically enhances the quality of our everyday lives.”

This is exactly what is meant by Dame Westwood’s Active Resistance to Propaganda, and although the passage is about literature, you may substitute any other art form… painting, music, sculpture, dance, etc.

Art is a commentary—sometimes a dialogue—about the human condition. It reflects ourselves, in totality, how we really are: our fears, our cruelty, our obsessions, our hatreds, but also our hopes, our aspirations, our yearnings and our capacity to bring ourselves and others to love.

Do not accept only what is “popular” now. Do not accept only that which corporations and businesses want you to consume/ read/ watch/ buy/ listen to. Watch a silent film from the 1920s, read a classic book like “Anna Karenina” or “A Tale of Two Cities,” go to a museum and compare Dutch masters to Cubism, listen to a piece of music you wouldn’t normally—and find out why these things are considered great. Make an informed, educated opinion about these things. Expose yourself to as much as you can. Enter into a dialogue with the creative spirit of the world. And as Vivienne Westwood believes, in this “pursuit of culture you will think for yourself; that if you change yourself, you will change the world.”

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