Courtesy of NBC

October 11, 2018

YANG | The Apolitical Artist

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Two weeks ago, during an appearance as musical guest on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, Kanye West delivered an unplanned pro-Trump speech to the audience as the credits rolled. Now you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking I’m either going to defend or bash Kanye on his speech and his twitter rants about the 13th Amendment. Well, I’m not going to do either of those things. There’s something else entirely that concerns me.

This past Saturday, SNL cast member Pete Davidson discussed the incident during “Weekend Update.” Davidson urged Kanye to take his meds and said that while Kanye is a musical genius like “Joey Chestnut is a hot dog-eating genius,” he doesn’t want to “hear Joey Chestnut’s opinions about things that aren’t hot dog-related.”

Incidentally, the day before Davidson’s SNL appearance, Lady Gaga went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and gave a defense of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford with regards to memory mechanisms and trauma, and her speech soon went viral on Twitter. The day after, Taylor Swift made a surprising Instagram post in which she endorsed Democratic candidates for Tennessee and encouraged her fans to register to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, breaking her prolonged political silence. While many applauded Gaga for standing up for sexual assault survivors, many also laughed off her explanation of memory simply because she’s “just an artist.” And while many applauded Swift for finally using her massive platform for political advocacy, the critics, especially those who are upset about her endorsements, expressed a sentiment similar to what Davidson said on SNL — artists should not involve themselves in politics.

The idea of an apolitical artist is incredibly troubling to me, especially in this day and age. It is a sentiment shared by many people on both ends of the political spectrum, that artists should not voice their political opinions, and that when they do, they should not be listened to because they are not experts on the matter. For some, seeing an artist going public about their political stance undermines the value of their work and their credibility as a creative. The people who post in the Facebook comment sections “who cares” with an eyeroll emoji are essentially saying  “shut up and just make your art.”

The underlying assumption in such belief is that arts and politics are inherently separate entities, when in reality they have always have been interconnected. We love and resonate with music because, in one way or another, they capture what we feel or who we are. We laugh and cry at movies and plays because they either tell our own stories or enable us to see the world through a different lens. Great artists are constantly reinventing themselves, their artistic form, and in doing so essentially testing the boundaries of human imagination.

Intentionally or unintentionally, art has always strived to capture and comment on the human condition — our greatness and plight, our pain and joy, be it as “significant” as war and peace, or as “insignificant” an ex who cheated. And isn’t that what political expression is, or at least, is supposed to be? Describing the world as we see it, or voicing what we’d like it to be? In the end, the apolitical artist doesn’t exist, because there is no art that isn’t political.

That is not to say that artists, like any other individual, should not be called out when they spread misinformation in discussing their individual politics, especially given that they have a much larger audience than ordinary people. Kanye can be as pro-Trump as he wants — it is, after all, written in the laws of this land — but he also deserves backlash when he says things that are factually incorrect. There’s nothing wrong with correcting Lady Gaga if she did in fact explain memory and trauma wrong, but she shouldn’t be discredited simply on the basis of being a singer. On the flip side, artists shouldn’t be obligated to be publicly political just because how large of a fanbase and influence they might have. Taylor Swift’s decision to voice her political opinions now is not something she’s owed the world, but more so her redefining herself as an artist and as a citizen.

So let’s give them more credit and allow our artists their political expression — because it’s always been between the lines of the job description. And to echo Swift’s speech at the AMAs: “It’s the midterm elections on November 6. Get out and vote.”

 

Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternating Mondays this semester.