In one of the most bizarre scenes to come out of Stephen Colbert’s Andy Kaufman-like role-playing – one rivaling the time Henry Kissinger was forced to recite the line “Let’s get ready to rock” – Bill O’Reilly appeared on the very show designed to parody his own. Sadly though, Colbert missed a stellar chance to further expose the embedded political divisions in this country, and O’Reilly used his appearance as a plug for his new book, “Culture Warrior.”
Before O’Reilly appropriated the term “culture warrior,” it was a phrase I used to describe myself. As an artist, I use the expressive tools of the visual and literary arts to express my political views and to change minds. That was my definition of a culture warrior. Imagine my surprise when I first heard Bill O’Reilly and I could both be described by the same term.
Using culture to combat social norms is not a new tactic. O’Reilly is attempting to point to a political battleground that was for a long time solely the realm of the Left. Using culture to subtly change society has been a common method for avant-garde groups starting with Dadaists of the early 20th century and reaching a pinnacle in the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Although often trumpeted in the exalted cultural space of the museum gallery, the cultural battle is most often waged in everyday life. Whether in the lyrics of a popular song, in a magazine ad or in Mary Tyler Moore forgoing floral for pants on the Dick Van Dyke Show, cultural rebellion is more effective when aimed at the masses. Political activism through culture should be entertaining. For example, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done more to solidify Democrats in this country than many other serious political leaders.
But where are the rest of today’s culture warriors? Whereas cultural production was seen as the tip of the revolutionary spear 40 years ago, today it has been relegated to the fringe, perceived to only feature black turtlenecks and weird hairdos. Of course, this is how mainstream society has always viewed the art world. What is shocking is that many artists today agree with this categorization and willingly resign themselves to the sidelines.
This weekend, I went to the University’s Arts of Citizenship Conference, which is specifically designed to address the ways the arts can foster community action and bring about political and social change. Present were several poets from the vibrant Detroit poetry scene. Amazingly, several of the poets expressed their disdain for blatant activism in art and discouraged the use of didactics.
Leading the discussion was Sekou Sundiata, who later performed his 51st (dream) State, a piece intended to explore American identity in a post-Sept. 11 world. However, I couldn’t help feeling that the promise of lofty political enlightenment had fallen short. At the conference, Sundiata echoed some of the other poets and admitted that he had tried to stay away from “the language of rhetoric and persuasion.” He certainly accomplished this task. His show was a beautiful spectacle of light and sound, but only those actively searching for it found any cohesive political message.
Too many artists claim an activist intent but hide behind a veil of ambiguous meaning. This ambiguity rarely comes from a heightened level of sophisticated thought. Sadly, it more likely stems from a lack of effort and reflection.
Rhetoric can be a bad thing because it’s so often tied to closed-mindedness. Politics are too often waged by rhetoricians who, equipped with the barbs of dogma, unleash tried-and-true lines designed to reduce political discourse to its most common denominator. This is a sin committed by all parts of the political spectrum, and it can grind productive political dialogue to a halt.
The hesitation to infuse radicalism with creative expression probably comes from the fact that we have seen it so many times before. The impassioned furious gestures of political protest have become clich