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Guillermo Gómez-Peña: Ten Notes on the Role of the Artist in the Obama Era: How I fell out of love with the president

May 1, 2010

Ten Notes on the Role of the Artist in the Obama Era: How I fell out of love with the president

By Guillermo Gómez-Peña

What follows are excerpts from various texts I wrote from the day President Obama won the election up to the beginning of 2010. I am not a political insider. My political opinion and reactions are those of an artist citizen. Like most of my performance literature, this text is meant to be circulated online, published and performed live.

1. -The day after Obama got elected, I wrote:

“It’s hard to believe but the U.S. now has an intellectual mulatto with a Muslim name as President, and a black family will soon occupy the White House – a building built BY slaves and designed by an architect who owned slaves. This is a very, VERY powerful symbolic image that surpasses any artistic or literary symbolism.

Obama’s win is a triumph for all outsiders and rebels. And many of us support him fully knowing he isn’t a progressive. We know he is a post-ideological centrist pragmatist, but he’s got an international vision, a transparent consciousness, great oratory skills and lots of style. This is a radical change from our immediate past we badly wish to forget.
Obama’s triumph has taken a huge weight off our shoulders. It’s as if the oppressive cloud of the Bush Era has evaporated as we walk into an ineffable post-apocalyptic zone. And this is an uncertainty I can live with. Uncertainty is a much better state than paranoid nationalism. It is in fact an ideal state for artists.
Art can actually be defined as an attempt to articulate uncertainty.
As our new immediate goal, together let’s figure out how can art help us through this transition.”
The artwork we had created in the past 8 years, which had been mostly in opposition to the Bush administration and its international policies, may no longer be pertinent. The crucial question for artists now is: What will our new role be in the Post-Bush Era?

2. After Obama’s famous “Race Speech,” I wrote:

“Obama’s humanism at times may appear light to us, but what excites me is that it opens up a huge space, a blank screen for us to project our artistic desires and aspirations, and ultimately, to join in. To me, Obama’s ‘change’ means that we have to actively partake in the change; that we can imagine joining in with our full brown and black selves, just as Obama walked his blackness straight through the White House doors. It means that our personal lives can finally become a permanent laboratory for change.
Performance artists understand this Gandhian philosophy: We must become the very change we wish to see in the world. We just have to put it in writing, so to speak, and make art about it, because like Subcomandante Marcos once told Jose Saramago, ‘La revolución es la palabra.’
Joining in Obama’s change also means that we have to rethink everything: our political, cultural and educational institutions; the way we relate to others, from our loved ones and neighbors to other countries; our race, gender and cultural politics; our notions of citizenship and nationality; and our relationship to the earth itself and its myriad creatures. And HOPEFULLY, openness, generosity and solidarity can permeate all our actions and projects.
It means all these things, even if Obama is not in total agreement with us or if our goals are not fully attainable because our human condition will betray us, I say: “Let’s give it a try.”
Those were the days of relentless hope and euphoria. Lingering on the horizon were a myriad promises that included ending the senseless occupation of Iraq, closing down Guantanamo Bay, undoing the excesses of the Patriot Act and the Bush Doctrine, the total reinvention of our public health system, and the restoration of funding for the arts. What a grand political project!
The whole world was cheering and dancing. Remember the image of those Japanese punks crying in ecstasy for the CNN camera? The world felt echoes of Václav Havel’s Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the emergence of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa, Felipe Gonzalez’ Spain right after Franco’s death, and the early days of the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua…
Our euphoria made us forget to ask ourselves the obvious questions: Will Obama be able to fulfill his promises even though he has chosen to surround himself with by the very establishment he claimed to oppose? Will Obama be allowed to be Obama? After 8 years of silence and fear, are we simply projecting our broken dreams and desperate needs? Are we expecting way too much from a politician?”

3. Six months into his presidency my euphoria began to evaporate and my colleagues and I began to ask some tough questions:

“When will Obama begin to listen to the critical voice of artists and intellectuals? Will his suggestion of creating a Ministry of Art and Culture become a reality?
When will he begin to address poverty in the U.S.?
And what about his moral debt to Latinos, the second main constituency who brought him to power?
Will he ever call for the tearing down of the U.S./Mexico border in the same way he celebrated the “erasure of all borders” in his legendary “Berlin Speech?”
Will the Obama administration restore the broken relationship between the U.S. and its Latin American neighbors?
Will he help to stop U.S. arms sales to the Mexican drug lords, lift the dated Cuban embargo, and sit at the table to have dialogue with Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and the new Latin American left?
Will he finally acknowledge the enormous debt that the U.S. has to the Native Americans? Will he ask them for forgiveness in the same way the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd publically apologized to the Aboriginal population 2 years ago?”
Was it Obama’s fault that his promises remained unfulfilled? (Long dramatic pause)
Well, yes…and no.
Yes, for creating huge expectations.
No, because white America will never let him.
Why? White America, (I mean, Red America) is afraid of having that “change” and “hope” sink in. It’s safer if those words just orbit around and never land and take root.
Despite this realization, a world with Obama was, and still is, considerably better.”

4. If Obama didn’t have to spread himself so thin, what would his speeches be like?

I am thinking in particular of Obama’s Berlin Speech—a masterpiece of Hallmark humanism and global sentimentalism. When I heard it, I thought: what if we shift the contextual geo-cultural information of the speech and replace Berlin with Tijuana in the language of the text? And this is precisely what I did as an exercise in performance literature. What follows is an excerpt of a speech by the Obama I would really like to hear…Obama on steroids: (in Tijuana?)
“Ours is a complicated partnership that began 160 years ago this summer, on the day when the Guadalupe-Hidalgo treaty was signed and half of Mexico was taken by force by America, and an arbitrary border was created here in this great city.

People of the world – look at the present Tijuana-San Diego metropolitan area, where the many borders imposed by the North, borders made out of barbed wire, metal and concrete – helicopters, dogs and high tech weaponry insist that we never forget our common humanity. Here at the Tijuana-San Diego border, a triple wall must come down and a continent must come together so that history can prove that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.

When you, the Mexican people, tear down this wall – a wall that divides arbitrarily North and South; freedom and poverty; fear and hope – walls will come tumbling down around the world. From Guantánamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, prison camps will close, and the doors of democracy will reopen in fearful societies like the U.S.

Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall brought new hope, the imminent fall of the Tortilla Curtain will bring us even more hope…”

5. But, unfortunately, there were other tracks playing at the same time.

In early 2009, the fictional economy that had sustained American suprematism since the times of Reagan collapsed into an unprecedented vortex. And it wasn’t your typical “recession.” It seemed to be something much more serious: “the end of the American century,” as Tomas Friedman labeled it.  This meant the end of the U.S. as a world super-power and the beginning of a “post-American era.” I was reminded of John Cage’s dream, “A time in which the U.S. is not better or worse in any way than any other country.” What beautiful dream, que no?
During a spoken word performance tour, I told my audiences: “The U.S. might soon be one more humble member in the international community of countries, and that’s OK with me. Is it OK with you?” And they applauded.
But not everyone saw it this way.
Throughout 2009, the politicians in Washington attempted to “bail out” the banks, the big corporations and the car manufacturers in hopes of restoring the mirage. They believed that by giving lots of money to their peers and accomplices, they would save the sinking ship. Besides being cynical, were they also delusional? I asked my audiences: “What about bailing out those who have lost their homes and their jobs? Bailing out the true victims of a dysfunctional, greedy and unjust system? The homeless? The poor? The runaway kids? The infirmed? The day laborers? The sex workers? What about bailing out our schools, hospitals and art spaces? Bailing out the artists?
What about bailing out our pinche soul!?”
But then, isn’t this precisely what Obama did for his first six months in office?  Maybe the temporary bailing out of our souls was the extent of the Obama project, and we should have been happy with it.

6. The remedies proposed by financial pundits and politicians to face the unfolding financial crisis were all too familiar to artists:
live within your means; tighten your belt; don’t rely on your credit card; use less water, electricity and oil; Go Green!; if possible grow your own foods (and mota); barter and trade your skills and knowledge; rely on your neighbors and community; expect less from the government; do it yourself in dialogue with your friends and peers; the change starts when you wake up. It sounded like Joseph Beuys’ “Energy Plan for the Western Man.” Short of suggesting that we should frequent dive bars and not the local hipster joint, it was as if they were describing the artists’ way of life.
Despite these familiar conditions, an artist thinks differently, imagines a better world, and tries to render it in surprising ways. And this becomes a way for his/her audiences to experience the possibilities of freedom that they can’t find in reality.

7. With a few exceptions, artists have had to live in constant crisis and within our means. Our frail economy fluctuates from one week to another and sometimes from one day to the next. For decades, we have been technically jobless, and yet we have managed to survive. After all these years, my aunts in Mexico still ask me with perplexity: What do you really do, sobrino? ‘Que es eso del performance art? Do you have an actual job?’ Sadly, I don’t know how to answer them.

Let’s face it: Artists don’t really fear loosing jobs, because we rarely have the jobs we deserve or want, if we have them at all. Only a minute percentage of artists have access to funding and can make a living solely from creating art. And for every artist whose work gets decently remunerated, there are thousands performing or exhibiting for nothing – making something truly amazing in the darkness. Do artists mind? On the surface it appears we don’t, but deep inside, YES WE DO!  It is true that we always make art against all odds because art for us is a necessity much in the same way making money and war is for the neocons, but let’s get real: we deserve to be remunerated in the same way a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer does….especially if you believe that art matters.

8. In August 2009, I wrote:

“I now live with fewer fears. A long list of fears has been erased from my mind, including: the fear of being surveilled and constantly censored; the fear of being detained or placed on a no-fly list for criticizing the government; and the fear of deportation.  All these fears are gone. But a new fear is growing inside my stomach: that the U.S. might not know how to adapt to the challenges of the financial crisis and live within its means. So many Americans who have assumed their wealth is a birth right may not know how to live with half their money, with a more humble job, and sometimes without even a job; with a smaller home and only one used car, or even without a car, OR relying on public transportation like most of the world does. For those who have never lived this way, the immediate future seems spooky. We know what fear does to our thinking and actions. It creeps in, makes itself at home, grows larger and more powerful every day to eventually become its own character, driving us to think and behave in ways we wouldn’t have thought imaginable. To attest to this, all we need is to turn on Fox News and witness the massive staging of fear as part of national culture – it is the norm that Fox wants to project, the norm their followers believe.
For decades American identity has been based on the following mythology: We are a privileged nation, a chosen people, the most perfect democracy on earth; the freest society on this planet; the strongest military power, the most original art world, ad infinitum. And to accept that this creed was flawed never really true and that from now on there will be daily evidence of its hollowness, is perhaps the main philosophical challenge facing the right-wing citizenry – roughly half of the U.S., so-called Red America, perhaps even some of you….
Coming to terms with a more humble sense of national and personal identity will be extremely tough for a culture that does not value humility.  Those who can’t do it will be spiritually devastated. Those who are unable to understand that our sense of worth and dignity need not be connected to our jobs, to the amount of money we make, or to what we own, will be permanently troubled. And their despair might translate into more hate crimes against perceived enemies (namely the immigrants and cultural ‘others’), more domestic violence and more self-destructive violence expressed in the form of psychosis, illness and suicide. America might become an even more angry and violent country.  This is what scares me the most. The fact is that the only industries that have benefited from the collapse of the economy are gun manufacturing, arms sales, bible sales and cheap alcohol.”
How understated I was in mid-2009 when I wrote this excerpt. It didn’t take long for a new virulent form of racism triggered by the profound fear of a black president to emerge to the surface with the much-touted “birther” and “tea party” patriot movements appearing on the national scene. The Aryan supremacist movement grew in volume and increased its threats; and the radical expression of anti-immigration sentiments became part of the daily news.

9. We have been left standing atop a disaster site, overlooking the political, economic, cultural and spiritual ruins of the immediate past. And this tragic inheritance requires the immediate intervention of artists, activists and intellectuals, in other words: people like you. Not only can we help articulate and chronicle the change, but we must also partake in the healing and reconstruction processes. Art can save lives, both figuratively and for real.

We know this, but how do we persuade politicians of the need to include us in the process if they themselves are guilty of pushing art to the margins of public discourse and defunding our cultural institutions? How do we remind politicians and the media that democracy cannot exist without the critical voice of the artist that constantly tests and pushes its limits and possibilities?

In fact, politicians and the mainstream media are primarily responsible for contaminating the language of ‘democracy’ starting with the word ‘democracy’. Words like ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ mean nothing anymore. What about ‘freedom of speech?’  It is the job of poets and philosophers to reclaim and ultimately to heal these words. We can’t let ‘hope’ and ‘change’ be emptied of their meanings either. It is precisely the job of critical artists and intellectuals, not politicians, and certainly not the army, to defend these notions. But does anyone outside our artistic milieus know this?  How can we possibly reach them? Design a fan page on Facebook? Tweet on Twitter? Begin sending out guerilla-style podcasts? Any ideas? Anyone?

The language of radicalism, revolution and transgressive behavior has been clearly hijacked by pop-culture and large corporations turned into mere advertisements to entice lethargic consumers, especially youth who by their nature ask questions and challenge, but these days succumb more and more to “commodified dissent.”  It is the job of performance artists to free these terms and restore the meaning of “necessary transgression.”  But does anyone outside our milieus know it?  How can we convince them?

After 8 years of isolationism and militarism, one of the most important cultural projects of our times is to find a new and more humble role for the U.S. in the world community, and to fight all forms of isolationism and xenophobia. Art can help attain these goals. You know, and we know: Artists are by nature extremely efficient intercultural brokers and informal diplomats. We can cross the dangerous and sensitive borders that politicians and religious leaders are unable or unwilling to cross.

These needs may be clear to us, but will the new political class acknowledge the importance of art in this epic project of reinvention?

10. Dear President Obama,

It’s only been over a year since you came into office, and artists in the U.S. are facing conditions comparable to our peers in so called “third world” countries. Our budgets and salaries continue to shrink, our art spaces are facing probable extinction…and many intellectuals and artists continue to migrate to other countries, including my own performance troupe. We now spend more than half of the year working in other countries because we simply can’t survive from the minute compensations we receive in America.
Are you aware that half of the U.S.’s experimental arts milieu is now living in Berlin, London, Lisbon, Oaxaca and Buenos Aires? Do you care?

Will you accept our help by restoring the lost funding and inviting us to come to the table to debate? You do know that with the price of one high tech bomber you could triple the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Have you forgotten your promises of creating a Ministry for Arts and culture?

Will you consider meeting with artists regularly in the same way you meet with bankers, military officers, world leaders and athletes?

Will you have a beer with me in the same way you had a beer with the cop who busted Henry Louis Gates?

Aren’t you tired of being everything to everyone?

Are we on the same page?

Can we talk back to you?

Will you listen?

Will you answer this letter?

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