Artists to the Back, Or Joe Arpaio is the Best Performance Artist in America

“We’re very underrepresented, as you can see in this conference,” Favianna Rodriguez said at the beginning of the best thing I’ve seen at Netroots Nation so far, a panel called “Educate, Agitate, Inspire: How Artists are Fighting Anti-Migrant Hate” that turned into a broader discussion of the arts and their role in progressivism—and that helped me articulate a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about since I came to ThinkProgress.

What the panelists said, and what I think is tremendously valuable, is that we are losing opportunities to make progressive messaging and campaigns more effective when we marginalize artists. Artists get brought into the conversation last, when, as Favianna put it, professional progressives have decided on strategy and message, and “when they think about engaging artists, they think about ‘here are talking points, reiterate them.'” That’s condescending, of course, and it means you can avoid building an infrastructure that supports and incorporates artists into the progressive movement if you just don’t think they matter very much. But more to the point, an approach to artists that treats them as if they’re just meant to execute messaging within a political context misses is a dramatic underutilization of artistic capacity.

That approach should be reversed, Ken Chen, the executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, said, to ask: “how do we taking things that are hard issues, like post-9/11 detention, and spin them in ways that enter people’s lives while they’re pre-political?” That kind of engagement is hard to measure, and because it doesn’t produce a white paper or a talking point, it “requires an investment on behalf of the artist,” that demands a measure of trust and patience, Favianna said.

And beyond politicizing people through the culture they consume, Chen pointed out that shaping campaigns with an eye towards what’s artistically effective can give them tremendous reach.

“There actually is an incredibly successful cultural campaign in Arizona, but it’s not on our side,” he pointed out. “It’s Joe Arpaio, who is probably the best performance artist of the last generation. He’s always thinking about things not in the way a traditional Pat Buchanan thing would think like. It’s like Christo does a crackdown on the migrant community…You can buy pink underwear autographed by Sheriff Arpaio. You can be deputized, and wear night vision goggles, and fulfill your fantasy. He has a tank that has his logo on the side. He raided a house with Steven Seagal.”

And artists can be a check on a progressive tendency to make politics deadening, said Javier Gonzalez, who is helping run the SoundStrike campaign that’s convinced musicians to avoid performing in Arizona to protest the state’s repressive immigration policies.

“The left comes from this rational, enlightenment period debate, we’re going to have a pipe and be Socratic, so we create these boring campaigns,” he said. “You can do the stuff they did in the sixties, ‘come to a forum on Palestinian liberation, discussion from 1pm to 6pm.’ People are not going to go to that stuff anymore. We have to be more creative.”

Progressives are good at recognizing that the medium is the message when it comes to technology. We’re much less good at that when it comes to incorporating art as a core tactic and a shaper of strategy.