‘Take Your Broken Heart and Turn it into Art’: What Role Does Art Play in Politically Turbulent Times?

Meryl Streep’s electrifying anti-Trump speech at The Golden Globes touched a liberal nerve globally.

Calls for her to run for president in 2020 briefly eclipsed the focus on Michelle Obama to do the same. Streep finished with Carrie Fisher’s words ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art’, as a cri de coeur to her fellow Hollywood thespians and I, for one, felt a surge of possibility recalibrating my optimistic impulses.

But then I remembered Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation and real life.

Curtis’ latest documentary is made up of his usual Brechtian montage of anachronistic footage, which begins, more or less, in 1970s New York. 1970s New York? Surely that was the time when Vietnam protests, punk, Andy Warhol and the dawn of disco were all of a thing? In Curtis’ account of the times, artists were retreating into their own practice and critically observing society’s discontents without becoming part of the collective rebellion that characterised the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This was the moment when self-expression formed the antithesis to political change.

In an interview with artspace’s Loney Abrams, Adam Curtis spoke passionately against individualism:

You’re feeding the monster. Because the more people come to believe that self-expression is the end of everything, is the ultimate goal, the more the modern system of power becomes stronger, not weaker. To challenge power you have to go into the woods at night together.

Three people spoke out against Trump in their acceptance speeches at The Golden Globe awards: Byron Howard, Jimmy Fallon and Hugh Laurie. I wonder if Adam Curtis would have thought their libel-checked references were enough.

At the UK equivalent, The BAFTAs, Ken Loach  was a lone force railing against the government in his representation of, ‘the real world we live in’. And yet in 2003 a million people in London marched against fighting a war against Iraq. My friends and I were among them.

In 2001, I’d felt so passionately opposed to the West’s proposed retaliation for September 11 that I put together an anthology of anti-war thinkers in a book called Voices for Peace, which was published by Simon & Schuster in the UK and the US.

But now I think back to the good-will and sense of purpose and hope we had when marching and reflect that perhaps Curtis is right: ‘If you do want to change the world you have to give yourself up to it.’ Perhaps it’s not enough to march and then go home.

Guardian Columnist Deborah Orr recently commented on the lack of realist drama on TV in this time of austerity and cuts:

It feels a bit sinister, narratives being deemed too political or didactic for the people they represent to have access to them. It seems even more sinister that the party in power is the one least likely to want such stories told.

As a poet, the idea of ‘taking your broken heart and turning it into art’ makes perfect sense. As a citizen of a world in political turmoil, I’m less convinced that a new collection of poems, an abstract painting or an American satire (all of which I love, by the way) will be sufficient to dislodge either the power structure or the embedded individualism that is characteristic of our communication and our times.

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