On February 15th, my friend James Padilioni, Jr. and I gave a talk about art and liberty to the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference. Wacky poltergeist-like technical problems prevented us from finishing the talk and interrupted the part that we did give. So we thought we’d publish (more or less) what we wanted to say over here at BHL, in the hopes that people who wanted a fuller version will come and find it.
What we want to do today is really very simple. James and I have both made lengthy arguments in a variety of other formats about the importance of art for liberty, and the importance of liberty for art. But we don’t want to make a complicated argument today.
What we want to do instead is to tell you that you’ve been told a lie. Art is not the enemy of liberty. They go hand in hand. But you will never discover that if you demand strict ideological purity from your art. We don’t. We like art that opens up conversations and poses questions. Not art that tells us what the answers are. And there is so much of that kind of art out there that supports and explores the things that we love.
And we want to prove that to you by pointing to four areas where art works for liberty, and by giving you a whole host of references of art to which liberty lovers should be paying attention—a random walk through culture, if you will—that you can explore on your own and to which you can add your own examples.
The first of these areas is art that is explicitly created to question the entrenched state. One of the most radical current examples of that surely must be Suzanne Collins’s young adult trilogy The Hunger Games, which is explicitly anarchist in its politics, and which has been a massive best seller that has produced a trilogy of films as well. In this same category, we think of much of the history of punk music, with its verbal and visual cacophony, not to mention its politics of aggressive independence and resistance to authority. It’s a musical version of the exchange in The Wild Ones. “What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?”
The wildly successful House of Cards (and check out fellow blogger Steve Horwitz’s online course here) provides viewers with a close look at the underbelly of politics, and encourages all of us to think of politics, and politicians, without romance. It’s an epic look at dangers of power from within, and a serious political work on the order of Orwell’s 1984, another work of art that serves as an excellent vaccine against the virus of political orthodoxies. Less serious, perhaps, but equally focused on the importance of resisting political power is Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a science fiction western that focused on a band of rebel soldiers who were on the “losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one” against an oppressive government.
Ai Wei Wei’s justly famous personal and artistic resistance to the Chinese states produces works like He Xie (River Crabs). Here the Chinese language pun between the words for “harmony’ and “river crab” allow him to create a work of art that suggests through its pile of battle crabs that in China harmony is built only on death and destruction.
And we want to tip our hats as well to the beautiful Polish graphic novel, Marzi, which tells the story of a young girl’s life amid the Solidarity struggles of the 80s, highlighting her dawning awareness of the serious issue around her as she emerges from childhood into a fuller understanding of the daily struggles and the larger dangers of socialism.
Another area in which to watch for art that praises markets and entrepreneurship. Sarah has a twice monthly Freeman column that often explores literature that does this, and the column that went up right before the ISFLC conference (which began on Valentine’s Day) was an exploration of the way that work and entrepreneurship often form an important plot point for romance novels. But paintings does the same. Consider the Dutch still lifes that record and celebrate the small daily luxuries brought in by the roaring Dutch market culture—while still reminding the viewer of the transience of such earthly joys. Consider the 21st century innovation of reality television shows like Undercover CEO, Project Runway, Kitchen Nightmares, and Top Chef, where the focus is on the skills, grit, and determination needed to succeed in business.
Two Broke Girls is a fictional representation of this same kind of work ethic, as the daughter of a disgraced Bernie Madoff type joins with her friend, a less business-savvy baker, to open a shop where they can each highlight their particular talents.
There is an ever growing area of art that is created in liberty-supporting ways. What we want to point to here, really, are the ways in which the increasing ease of access and use for a whole range of formerly “professionals-only” technology has put the tools for creating art into the hands of the people who make it—freeing them from the need to get major studio support, to sign contracts they aren’t happy with, or to change their message in order to fit a set perception of what the market wants. In this category we put works like the webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which envisioned Pride and Prejudice as a video diary, gained a massive online following, won an Emmy, and raised over $460,000 from individual fans on Kickstarter to fund further projects. A less well-known webseries, The Outs, has used the freedom of crowd funding to explore GLBTQ issues in a frank way that would likely be unacceptable on commercial television.
We think of the enormously popular podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, independently produced by a small group of friends, and now with a book deal, a set of tour dates, and over 100,000 regular listeners. It’s completely fan-funded as well. (And, as Sarah noted here, contains some compelling content for BHL readers.) There’s the street art movement—epitomized by Banksy, who specializes in anti-surveillance state commentary—but filled out by thousands of others, known and unknown, who make art from materials no one thinks about, in places no one expects. (And yes, we acknowledge the complicated nature of the property rights question when it comes to graffiti.)
The last area is what James and I called our grab bag. This is art, like the music of BHL house band Radar vs Wolf, that is either made by libertarians without a specifically ideological purpose, or that, like the recent movies Frozen and The Lego Movie, seem to spur the kinds of conversations about art and liberty we think we should be having a lot more often.
We have seen, in the news again, poets hanged for their defense of civil liberties. We have seen students and other protestors dying in the streets of Venezuela and the Ukraine. We know that art will not solve this. Art will not free the world from oppression and violence. But it will let us celebrate some of the things that might.
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