In recent times, I’ve chosen to characterize my visual and literary practice as “culturally subversive art”.
Merriam-Webster defines subversion as “a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system.” To subvert is “to overturn or overthrow from the foundation, ruin, by persons working secretly from within”. Ooh!
Or, how about this? “…to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith”.
Merriam-Webster defines subversion as “a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system.” To subvert is “to overturn or overthrow from the foundation, ruin, by persons working secretly from within”…
“…to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith”
This word carries something of an emotional charge. Sounds dangerously anti-social and unwholesome, doesn’t it? Maybe even criminal.
“Why do you call your artwork ‘subversive’?” I’ve been asked, often with dubious looks of dismay, or uneasy amusement.
I’ve set for myself an ambitious task in my own modest way of ambition — to overthrow, undermine, overturn, ruin, pervert, corrupt and undermine a centuries-old social paradigm, and the attitudes, beliefs and social practices that attend to it.
So, what’s this social paradigm on which I’ve tilted my lance point?
Its current model is what sociologist and historian Riane Eisler calls the dominator society, as opposed to a partnership society.*
It’s a patriarchal society where attitudes and practices of domination, control and winning at any and all costs pre-dominate.
Does this sound familiar to you? It’s a paradigm where violence – overwhelmingly male violence — is implicit, passed forward from generation to generation as a socially sanctioned blood curse.
Let me make this dominator society more concrete for you, if it isn’t already: inequality in socio-economic, ethnic, gender, age and racial forms, bullying in our schools, campus rape, physical and emotional abuse in our families…
So, this is a clue for you.
While running a thread of subversion through my artworks, I try to avoid being didactic and preachy. My intention is to create art with a social conscience, not propaganda. Notwithstanding Master Yoda on “trying” versus “do or not do”, I have no illusion that I’ll always succeed.
Illustration by Gustave Doré of Don Quixote Tilting At Windmills
Cervantes, Miguel. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha
Neither do I think that every piece I create needs to be grim with the weight of its perceived mission of cultural revolution. There’s much in our world over which to feel angry and despondent. Feeling angry all the time, however, or being around angry people all the time, gets tiresome.
In fact, whimsy and humor is often the best way to point out the absurd and ridiculous ways that attitudes of “win” “dominate” and “conquer” at any cost often manifest in everyday life and popular culture, from sports to entertainment to business to sexual relationships.
Sometimes, I just like being contrary to convention. It can be fun (though I run the risk of indulging my darker passive-aggressive side with this.)
As an Asian-American male now almost four years into the sixth decade of my life (all of which presents their own sets of challenges), I continue to subvert the remnants of my own attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, prejudices and social practices as I determine these are no longer congruent to leading a life with deep, intimate, more fulfilling relationships. Shaking or even kicking over the shit bucket is one of the best ways to shake myself up.
I’d much rather laugh at myself than beat myself up, though. There was too much of the latter in my life, literally. It would be cool if I could get you laughing, too. Maybe you might find some of my art funny.
Admittedly, as with political and military subversion, there are risks, costs and penalties to being a cultural subversive – even meeting with violence at one extreme, but often also condemnation to social isolation and ostracism.
I’m of the opinion that much of what has become the popular image of the “insane” artist derives from creative individuals being driven to insanity by isolation for being “different”. (Be-on-the-lookout for a blog post – or rant – from me on this topic.)
No wonder Merriam-Webster states that subversion is done “by persons working secretly from within”.
Let me conclude by introducing one more charged word: For a subversive to organize or solicit others to subversion is called conspiracy.
I actually find conspiracy to be a lovely word. Its Latin roots “con spire” literally mean “to breathe together”. When people act in conjunction with each other to do good things, however, another word that can define this kind of breathing together is partnership.
I actually find conspiracy to be a lovely word.
Its Latin roots “con spire” literally mean “to breathe together”.
While we might at times have to “work secretly from within” for operational security, the best kind of conspiring is done out in the open, inclusive of greater and greater numbers, as opposed to exclusively for a privileged few. That partnership society is the kind of social paradigm I’m dedicated to help create through the open practice of visual art and writing.
I have more to say about this “cultural subversion” concept, a lot more; and there will be more that I’ll write. Art is not as removed from everyday life as some would have people believe, so as to give a justification to eliminate it from social and educational programs; and I’ll have more to say about that.
To help me rope you into my conspiracy, — and yes, I want us to conspire — I have in the works a series of blog posts for the near future, including on one of my favorite teachers in cultural subversion, Rembrandt Van Rijn.
In the meantime, your thoughts, please?
*Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.