Magdalena Mihaylova: Art is our only hope!

Monday, March 12, 2018 - 5:40pm

The first song that made me feel like a woman was “Can’t Hold Us Down” by singers Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim. I was about 12 years old, and despite how young I was, the lyrics struck my heart so deeply that I remember almost every detail about that day. From the first line, “So, what am I not supposed to have an opinion? / Should I be quiet just because I’m a woman,” I felt something brewing, bubbling and rising in the pit of my stomach — empowerment.

In the era of President Donald Trump, it is difficult to escape politics. It fills news cycles and conversations, and only if one is privileged can they ignore the dynamic changes in our country; “ignorance is bliss” has taken on a new meaning. Many people turn to art as a method of escape from political noise, but I argue that it is actually through books, movies and music that the most effective and important political statements can be made. When my parents sat me down at 12 years old and told me that I should always speak my mind regardless of my gender, I was probably too busy playing with my animal crackers to really internalize that message, however important it was. But when I heard Deborah Cox’s song “Absolutely Not,” with lyrics like “If I go to work in a mini-skirt, / Am I givin’ you the right to flirt? / I won't compromise my point of view / Absolutely not, absolutely not,” those sentiments became embedded in the hidden corners of my mind and influenced how I feel and act today.

This may seem like a silly, redundant anecdote, but I believe that subtle social influences have great authority in our world. A recent New York Times article commented on how, despite Republican control of government, from the presidency to the Senate to the House of Representatives, Democrats and progressives have massive cultural control in our country. Movements such as #MeToo or the diversification of media display the entwined relationship between policy and prose. The idea that liberals are gaining traction and influence through cultural mediums makes me hopeful for change. Art and politics have a crucial, interdependent relationship, and one that if utilized, can have a great effect.

And it has in the past. During the era of communism, Eastern Europeans found in rock 'n' roll music a channel for dissidence. Rock bands were the image of sneaky rebellion, in that they were able to express political opinions in a way that (mostly) didn’t get them in trouble with the government. Their music enticed and inspired thought, and was the foundation for many anti-state movements. For those trapped under a totalitarian regime that stressed monotony, the passion of music and symbolic lyrics served as a compelling motivator for revolution. Eventually, the power of these bands demonstrated how social expression could lead to real political change, as many scholars argue that rock music played a major role in the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.

In the United States, a similar phenomenon to what happened in Eastern Europe exists, and it has recently been manifesting itself in film. With new, successful movies such as “Get Out,” our nation is being exposed to important political statements in a manner that isn’t aggressive, but subtly influential. Artists are now able to gain success despite creating works centered on controversies, or that include diverse casting and themes. For example, “Get Out” appears as a simple horror film; however, underneath the classic horror plot, there is an abundance of meaning, and the movie is ultimately and undeniably about racism. Because horror is such an accessible and well-liked genre, director Jordan Peele was able to communicate a message to people who wouldn’t typically attend a movie about racism. And it wasn’t a flop: “Get Out” generated $255 million in box office profits worldwide and won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. This shows that art can be both political and successful.

George Orwell, an author known for his politically-messaged works such as “Animal Farm” and “1984,” once said, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” It would be easy for us to only use art as a means of entertainment and escape from the overwhelming political state of our country. However, it would be more responsible to continue to create, or at least support the creators, of tendentious art. And although the effects aren’t always on a large scale, such as in my 12-year-old experience, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important. If we use cultural power, we can and will generate social change; inevitably, tangible political power will follow. To me, it is obvious that something as beautiful and connective as art will eventually take the reins in building a more inclusive, functional and cohesive nation.

Magdalena Mihaylova can be reached at mmihaylo@umich.edu.