The contents of this article are for information and educational purposes only. Patriot Propaganda does not officially recommend using any of the tactics, techniques or procedures presented.
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” NORMAN VINCENT PEALE
FOR ART ACTIVISTS around the world, the quest for perfection isn’t contained to the work people do, but bleeds into how they live out their lives. There is often an expectation for people who take any political stance to have the “right” position on everything: to be a master-in-all-things, an angel without wings. This criterion haunts the field. We sometimes force this unreal standard upon ourselves; other times, it’s enforced by critics and pundits with the charge “hypocrite!” With expectations like this, any inconsistency found in the work or behaviour of the art activist is seen to undermine all their efforts.
Here’s another way to consider this problem of perfection. It prevents us from experimenting, taking chances, taking breaks, failing or, tragically, ever beginning. In the end, it justifies taking no action, because when we set impossible standards of purity and consistency that no human being can meet, nothing we do will ever pass muster. Better than being imperfect, the perverse logic goes, is to do nothing… but then, of course, nothing changes.
We stand with Walt Whitman when he wrote:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Double standards get a bad rap, but we can make them work for us. We should set a high standard; establishing ambitious goals for ourselves. This gives us direction and focus. But the reality is that if our goals are suitably ambitious, we’ll always fall short. We must keep a second standard; what we’ll settle for. And we need to be compassionate with ourselves when we land somewhere in between.
We can set out to permanently improve the dynamic of our neighbourhood in concrete ways, and be happy when we are able to do it for an afternoon. We can hold one strict standard for what we strive for, and a forgiving one for what we’d be happy to achieve.
No single action or artwork will cause a revolution or topple a government. If we hold ourselves to that standard, then everything is a failure. That’s insane. Don’t think like that. Living by a double standard, to us, means allowing ourselves a spectrum of success instead of a single point. It means having high standards that we aspire to, and understanding that we will usually fall short. This isn’t failure, it simply means we are human.
FREEDOM OF CONSTRAINT
PARADOXICALLY, LIMITATIONS AND CONSTRAINTS can stimulate creativity. Yet when we talk about constraints with artists and activists, they seem to get nervous and irritated. This is totally understandable, particularly for people who have committed themselves to artistic and political freedom. But too much freedom is as stultifying as too many constraints. Imagine making a piece for which you are given an endless amount of time, all the space you could possibly need, and the freedom to work in any medium. A bit stifling, isn’t it? While total creative freedom sounds nice, in practice, we all work within the limitations of certain physical places, the creative mediums we know or can learn, and the relatively brief period of time in which we are alive. It is because we have these few and relatively broad boundaries that we can be creative in without being paralyzed by the infinite.
When we create we are always operating under real constraints: labor, budget, location, and timeline, as well as the purpose and message of our piece. These confine our creativity, but they can also enable it. Once the rules are known and defined, we can decide how to play within them. The rules of baseball are very specific, yet broad enough that games are played every day with different outcomes; personalities emerge, boring moments happen, and there are distinct triumphs, controversies, joys, and so on. A blues song with a verse/chorus structure may seem simple and strict—only twelve notes, and four chords that change on a set rhythm—but that structure is what allows Jimi Hendrix to play a mind-bending solo in the second chorus. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins wrote about conceptual art as rules to a game. Higgins pointed out that, when rules are well-defined, they allow for all kinds of drama, excitement, and results.
Within all constraints, there is flexibility. When we begin an art activism piece, the first thing to do is explore the edges and see if we can push against them: Can the piece happen sooner or later? With more or less time and money? Can we renegotiate the expectations? Can we expand what’s possible or shift the terrain? Once we know the edges of the field we’re operating in, we can create the rules for our game; expectations and potential strategies can become clearer. This also makes it easier for others to find a role in which to participate. With clear boundaries and rules we can all start playing.
EXERCISE: THINKING INSIDE THE BOX
Time: 30 minutes
The goal of this exercise is to get you thinking inside the box — figuratively and literally. It’s about creating within constraints in order to generate new ideas.
1) Take out your sketchbook and something to draw with.
2) Think of an art activist piece that you would like to do, that you have done in the past, or that someone else has done and you’ve admired.
3) In your sketchbook, draw a picture of what that piece would be like if:
- It had to happen with one person, or one hundred people.
- It took place on a busy street, a silent meadow, or at sea.
- You were forced to work with your adversary.
- You only had one-tenth of the budget you were counting on.
- It had to take place within a large cardboard box.
You can draw more than one image for each prompt. The more the better, actually. None of these pieces will be perfect, many may not work at all, but that’s the point. Working within constraints forces us to think in novel ways in order to escape the boxes we are placed within.
For art activists, striving for perfection is not only reflected in the work that they do but also in the way that they live their lives. This often means having to take on an idealistic mindset which can lead to expectations that are impossible to satisfy. This is a dangerous mindset that will invariably lead to self-destruction. Fear of failure can be incredibly debilitating, leading to a state of paralysis that prevents us from trying new things, taking risks, recharging our batteries, and ultimately achieving success. Don’t get stuck in this trap! Create realistic goal posts and work inside the creative box you create for yourself. You’ll find that things will actually turn out pretty good. So, ya know, don’t worry about it. Embrace double standards.
This article was adapted from Duncombe, Stephen, and Steve Lambert. The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible. OR Books, 2021.
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