Our Political Portraits in 2D

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared here.

(Photos by Gage Skidmore)

(Photos by Gage Skidmore)

It wouldn’t be strange for a contemporary 2D artist to imagine her sketchbook as a kind of immediate scientific laboratory, a site where her repeated experiments and knowledge-building practices get drawn into existence. Moreover, the art that accumulates within the pages of the artist’s sketchbook would likely provide a unique description of her as an individual, especially after a lifetime of drawing. And, the ultimate composite portrait comprised of so many transformed pages would likely be an intimate one.

If thinkers of late have been critical of any one aspect of the sketchbook realm of artistry, it has been the notion that the commodification, rationalization and standardization of the sketchbook, which are many in genus and number, can control artists the way that markets tyrannize consumers and workers (who are regularly coerced to participate in the money economy without consent).

This is a real concern. Students and educators may naturally view the sketchbook as fodder for unbounded creativity, especially if they subscribe to Joseph Beuys’ aphorism that declares everyone an artist. But the fact remains that today’s sketchbooks are being marked by annotations meant to expedite the grader’s ability to appreciate student renderings—all in the interest of saving time and increasing the pace of work.

It is debatable whether students and educators also view the sketchbook principally as having anything to do with political currency or power. At first blush, it seems natural for them not to consider the political promise of art. And so, the annotations inspired by the efficiency of capitalist rationalization also seem apropos. But then, what does this suggest about the world in which artists actually create, or learn to create? What does this all suggest about the world in which sketchbooks actually exist?

There is a troubling parallel here: Each individual life trapped within the political strictures that bind the pages of American democracy shares much in common with the situation of the budding artist, who is coerced into surrendering her sketchbook for a grade, rather than being allowed to freely test and finesse an identity that is authentic and true to her very self. Given the major presidential options for America’s elections this year, we might ask in earnest: What are political individuals allowed to create in this country?

Of course, this is not the only question that sounds from the chattering teeth of a deeply disturbed and troubled American demos. In fact, we may further inquire as to whether or not our political sketchbooks were blank to begin with. Were we ever meant to develop an authentically political self through our democratic practice, or public “sketching?” Have we really been given a fair chance to express ourselves?

Or is the two-party system just a different form of political annotations meant to expedite a nominally democratic process, and thus make it more efficient for the authorities that seek to understand us in order to control us and dictate our future?

Are we forever to be chained, under a counterfeit gambit of freedom, to an election ritual that produces more of the same free market democracy, an aberrational vestige of political freedom so transmissible that it threatens the freedom of young artists to draw the way that true artistry demands?

According to recent polls on the Trump-Hillary deadlock, it seems that the public has said at least two things. First, no matter how much money Hillary Clinton spends on her campaign, she’s no more viable than Donald Trump. Second, America is willing to elect a maniac despite having Hillary as an option.

Now that Bernie Sanders, the other Democratic hopeful, is a foregone conclusion, we are safe to compare two evils now, evils which accurately reflect what many Americans have been drafting over and again in their political sketchbooks this election cycle.

Moreover, our primary elections and nominee processes in America have been a lot like actual sketchbooks insofar as they are used in the performative processes that evidence the artistic struggle to emerge and refine an authentic self, one that is capable of accurate portraiture. But, again, have our political processes given us such a chance? Does the Trump-Hillary dichotomy reflect a blank political sketchbook in which we have justly been able to practice our political authenticity and portraiture?

Consider our dissent this election cycle. We have been mocked for not supporting Hillary despite the prospect of a Trump presidency. And yet, is not the value of our political self, like the value of the artistic one, only authentically produced if we are free to create and sketch without the need to forever weigh whether someone will purchase our works in a gallery someday? (That is, without our having to annotate our lives so that they are more agreeable to, and more easily digestible by, the master class.) Indeed, we might ask if we truly participated in an election cycle whose concomitant democratic institutions and processes have reflected that we are free, as individuals, to dissent and command change.

Just as the possibility for dissent is arguably vital for any critical artist to develop herself (beyond becoming another steady hand given to mimicry), it would have been vital for a healthy democracy that Americans be able to dissent and produce an authentic election cycle, rather than some working model that is passive, perfunctory or commercial.

Those who yet tout Hillary as an authentic alternative to Trump (or a more desirable one) have settled for their place in our political universe as if art students who find something inherently reflexive about annotating their sketchbooks in preparation for selling their art in the real world. Their teacher, they so believe, has demanded of them a beneficial kind of conformist synchronicity, and they have responded in kind by forming a collective that bows to a managerial bureaucracy rigged to forever tell them what is art, and who they are as artists in the real world.

And, they have fallen in line, stenciling their future just to play it safe, just as those who flock to Hillary out of a lazy fear of Donald Trump and who also think the fate of their democracy rests in the hands of one person instead of their own.

How could there possibly be much room for a critical, authentic, anarchic or spontaneous individual left in the mix? This kind of political individual, on the other hand, who does not want a Trump or a Hillary for a political executive, is ruled out, just as the students who prefer natural and reflexive experimentation over conformity and annotations are ruled out of the art world, which subsequently leaves little room for anything other than a market of art collectors.

Politically, what we lose is something we maybe never had: democracy.

And our options, then, were never really our own: Trump or Hillary.

As Felicity Allen writes of the sketchbook, so, too, we might decry of our political and would-be democratic electoral institutions:

Our managerialist assessment culture in education, which is promoted as giving access, consumer choice and fairness, in fact acts as a formidable form of surveillance and regulation. It is repressive and it keeps people in their place.

***

Mateo Pimentel is a sixth-generation denizen of the Mexico-United States borderland. Mateo writes for political newsletters and alternative news sources. He also publishes in academic journals. Mateo has lived, worked and studied throughout Latin America for over a decade. He is a graduate student at Arizona State University and composes and records music in his free time. He tweets from @Mateo_Pimentel.

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