On Artists With Opinions // The Sunday Reading Roundup [2.26.17]

One of the things I most often have to defend (sometimes to others, and mostly to myself) is the relevancy of all my non-musical activities to classical music. And lately, as our current socio-political climate has gotten only more charged, I’ve seen an alarming rise in a certain sentiment towards non-political figures who choose to offer their thoughts on the crisis du jour.

Said sentiment, often in need of being cleaned up, can be summed up thusly: “Shut up and go back to making music/dancing/acting/[insert verb for other forms of art-making here].”

The idea is that if you’ve chosen to create art (“art” here being used as a catch-all phrase encompassing all forms of creative expression), you only have permission to create things for others to enjoy, and that you have somehow ceded your right as a thinking person to share your thoughts and opinions with others.

So, before I dump my laundry basket of weekly reading on you, I want to say a couple of things about what art is, and what it is not.

Art is not created in a vacuum.

Art is not meant to be consumed in a vacuum.

Art is not solely a vehicle to beautify the world.

Art is a distillation of its creator’s worldview, shaped by personal experience.

Art is a reflection of the world in which it is created.

Art is meant to challenge as well as inspire.

An artist who uses their medium as a form of expression (and not merely a craft that exists for its own sake) has a responsibility to observe humanity in all its terrible beauty and wonderful dysfunction, and to think critically about that beauty and dysfunction. An artist’s task is to tap simultaneously into that which is personal and that which is universal, and one doesn’t do that by pretending the outside world doesn’t exist.

So don’t give artists grief for thinking about things outside of their craft, because that’s their #$@%ing job.

Now, here are some of my favorite things that I’ve read/watched this week. Some slightly different themes emerged, so I’ve categorized accordingly.

Articles

Excellent pieces whose weird clickbait-y headlines are a disservice

Washington Post: “Refugees are already vigorously vetted. I know because I vetted them.” by Natasha Hall

During nearly four years as an immigration officer, I conducted in-person interviews with hundreds of refugees of 20 different nationalities in 10 countries. I saw countless refugees break down crying in my interview room because of the length and severity of the vetting process. From that experience and numerous security briefings, it’s clear that the authors of Trump’s order are unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration system, U.S. laws, international law and the security threats facing our nation.

Huffington Post: “I, Too, Am An Immigrant. I, Too, Belong.” by Raj Panjabi

(Found, upon reading this one, that the article was primarily an excerpt from a commencement speech, and that while it is indeed a powerful immigrant narrative, its focus was on the power of selflessness, neither of which were reflected in the headline. Oh well, HuffPo, you do you.)

Like many other refugees and immigrants, my journey has not been ”self-made.” As I share below, I believe the Americans who acted selflessly — providing my family with shelter, helping my parents secure jobs, sponsoring our green card applications, and mentoring me as a teenager — helped make my journey possible. I believe the selfless acts that shaped my life matter, as ever, for the lives of refugees and immigrants across America. And I believe no person, no policy, and no institution can strip the power we each have to act selflessly.

Pieces whose headlines could honestly have used a bit more clickbait

Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber” by Susan J. Fowler

(This blog post has gone viral without resorting to having a clickbait-y headline, so really, who am I to fault it?)

When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.

Lowrider: “Richard Montanez — Raza Report” by Henry De Kuyper and Mike Landers

(This article is from 2011, so really they’re forgiven for not being clickbait-y.)

His [Richard Montanez’s] enthusiasm is contagious, and his empathy for human struggle is genuine. He’s the product of a low-income Latino family and knows all too well what it’s like to work hard and barely make ends meet. Now he is far removed from that struggle, as Richard is the executive of multicultural sales and community activation at PepsiCo North America—a far cry from his initial job as a janitor with Frito-Lay. 

Pieces whose headlines got it just right

The New York Times Magazine: “The Stir-Fried Tomatoes and Eggs my Chinese Mother Made” by Francis Lam

This paragraph is, as the kids say, my everything:

I knew that I wasn’t going to figure out a recipe for it, because I realized that my not knowing how to make this dish was akin to my Cantonese getting rusty, to not knowing when Chinese New Year is every year. It’s because I’m not an immigrant, only a son of immigrants, and so I know only the frayed facsimile of the world that my parents grew up in. Being part of a culture without living in it is like being in a long-distance relationship. You can make it work with grand displays of affection and splendid visits, but you don’t get to have coffee together on a Sunday morning — the little things, the stuff daily life is built on. 

[Note: my mom (and grandma and aunt) also made this dish, and taught me to make it, but their version is vastly different.]

The New Yorker: “When Immigrants Are No Longer Considered Americans” by Hua Hsu

The history of immigration policy is filled with moments like these, when a group goes from subhuman to superhuman within a few short years, because of political winds beyond their grasp. […] It’s a reminder that the “Creed of Democracy” contains limits—that no amount of assimilation or integration will protect you when an alien requires conjuring; that being a model citizen means little when laws can be enforced arbitrarily, and you no longer qualify as one. Yet many of us still try to live up to such impossible standards.

Language Realm: “Translating Puns in Harry Potter” by…?

So how do you translate a pun? Although there is, obviously, no one solution to this problem, there are strategies and tricks that help. You can hope for a happy coincidence between your source and target languages, unlikely though this is; you can find a close alternative, which sometimes is obvious but often requires considerable thought; or you can recreate the entire pun in a separate fashion, which requires a lot of effort and may fail. 

Buzzfeed: “Muslims Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Good’ to Be Granted Human Rights” by Sara Yasin

had to smile, to be polite, to dissolve the hostility of those who thought Muslims were savage, alien creatures. I had to accept the explanation that these incidents were either less significant than they felt or just evidence of one individual’s ignorance — and that it was my responsibility to change their minds. I was never supposed to see them as the product of all the vehement anti-Muslim narratives in pop culture and the news that helped justify the surveillance and arrests our communities experienced in the aftermath of 9/11. Over and over again, my non-Muslim friends told me to brush these things off because they didn’t really see them as part of a bigger, systematic inequality: That would have meant thinking about what role they had in changing it.

I don’t know what’s going on, but Cracked is killing it

Cracked: “6 Big Differences That Turn City Dwellers into Liberals” by Loey Nunning

Suddenly multiculturalism isn’t some failed, politically correct agenda, it’s just your neighborhood. Cities are diverse because this is where people come to find jobs, and the vast majority of immigrants, both legal and illegal, live in them. By the time you show up in town, this huge kumbaya-world stew has already been boiling for ages. When you live around people from all over the world, you get to see first hand that most immigrants are normal, hard-working people, just with cool accents and better food.

Cracked: “The Real Reason for the Trans Bathroom Panic” by Ian Fortey

The idea of people being out there who are transgender is difficult for some to deal with. It’s a relatively new idea for some folks. But those people also need to appreciate an important point, and that’s who gives a shit? Who gives a shit if you’re not comfortable with gender identity and trans rights? If it’s not about you, why does it matter to you? 

Cracked: “6 Surprising Things You Learn in the Alt-Right Media Bubble” by Robert Evans

If you want to build a movement, here’s the first thing you should know: The best way to convert someone to a point of view is not to get in their face and scream inflammatory slogans. It’s to simply filter the facts so that they arrive at the conclusion you want on their own. Modern white nationalism has mastered this.

Documentaries

Lately I’ve been binge-rewatching Parks and Recreation and Veep (what can I say, there’s comfort in TV shows centered on ambitious and conflicted women) but I’ve ventured back into the wonderful, beautiful world of documentaries.

BBC Earth’s The Blue Planet

I know this series is going on sixteen years old (!), but I haven’t rewatched it since it came out, and all I can say about it is [heart eyes emoji]. It’s on Netflix!

SOMM: Into the Bottle

Highly, highly recommend. It’s beautiful, it’s informative, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s an inspiring reminder that art is art is art—that the drive and the struggle to create is universal, and that there is meaning to be found in toiling to create something that, in the end, exists for only a moment.

(Photo taken by me, from a 2015 trip to Paris.)

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I have gotten marginally more famous, huzzah!

It’s a good time for my ego—one of my friends (hi, Gina!) surprised me by naming me as one of 10 American Artists You Need to Follow in an article on pencils.com. Since then I’ve been busy going to VIP soirees in a private limo after long days of schmoozing with celebrities.

Okay, just kidding. I was totally schmoozing with celebrities long before that.

Bah, who am I kidding? Seriously though, it’s always quite humbling to be recognized, and the nice messages I’ve been getting as a result are like the very encouraging cherry on top of the sundae of recognition in this crazy angry world. I’m also very honored to be listed right alongside a fashion director from Say Yes to the Dress.

So…bow before me, you plebeians! For I am now an American artist to follow! And speaking of following, you should follow me on Twitter because I routinely tweet fascinating and witty insights on life.

 

 

Okay, I might have been kidding about the fascinating and witty insights. Gee, I’m full of tricks today! But you should still follow me, because saying you were a fan of me before I was über-famous will give you some serious hipster cred.

(Oh, and like my fanpage on Facebook! This blog post is not shamelessly self-promotional in any way.)

 

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In defense of art again

Facebook recently seems to have turned from a place for me to keep up with my friends’ lives into a forum for my acquaintances to share and re-share comics, pass links to news articles around, and spew their political or religious beliefs. I logged onto Facebook today and one of the things that caught my eye was the news that a politician (doesn’t matter which one, they’re always doing this) was pledging to cut funding for the arts.

The endlessly frustrating thing about these smug figures—regardless of political party—is the way they paint (pun not intended) the arts as a useless, disposable luxury that needs to make way for more important things. The other frustrating thing is that there are many people in this world who agree with said smug figures.

I guess when these people think of “arts education” they think of kids in school being taught to paste construction paper together or a horde of instrument-wielding children hooting tunelessly in band class; and when these people think of “funding the arts” they imagine millions of dollars being thrown at symphonies that play boring music only old people like to listen to and charge too much for tickets anyway, and people who make weird sculptures that get placed in parks for birds to poop on.

It is just too bad that these people—politicians and plebeians alike—can’t seem to understand that the arts are a functional thing, essential to society and to humanity. I dare anyone who wants to cut any sort of arts funding to go a week without using, doing, or looking at anything that involves the arts of any kind.

First they’d have to get rid of their clothes. Clothes and textiles are designed by artists. Then they’d have to move out of their house or apartment because the building they live in was invariably designed by an architect. Naked and shelterless, if they were able to find a place to lay their head (parks don’t count, they’re designed too) they couldn’t watch anything to pass the time, as movies and TV shows are produced by artists (and they wouldn’t be allowed to have TVs or computers anyway, as those are designed by arts-educated people) and they couldn’t read anything either, for writing is an art, as is bookbinding, newspaper-printing, and layout creation. They wouldn’t be allowed to listen to music of any sort, and the politician who did this (not that any would) would find him or herself no longer a politician, with no speechwriter to write speeches or designer to make signs and billboards.

The upside is that no one would have to see this poor pathetic arts-deprived sap, as he or she could not allow photographs to be taken, since photography is an art.

I’m not saying that cutting arts funding would result in a world where we’re all bored cavemen who aren’t allowed to do anything. But eliminating funding for the arts sends a very powerful message: that humankind’s rich, unique ability to create is useless, that the creativity that drives human innovation to improve our quality of life and our ability to create even more is not worth supporting or studying, that in the end we are all just wretched creatures scurrying pointlessly across this lonely Earth.

It tells children—the ones that dream of being artists and writers and musicians and dancers—that these dreams are stupid. It tells the dreamers who grew up to pursue being architects and designers and opera singers and concert pianists and ballet dancers and journalists and photographers that their very existence and struggle has absolutely no bearing on humanity.

It contradicts the fact that things like the Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Fifth, held as the pinnacles of human achievement (we sent Beethoven’s music out into space to represent us to the aliens, for gosh sakes) are treasured and revered. If the arts are not worth funding, then what is the point of valuing art?

If you strip art away from humankind, what do you have left? Without art, we’re really nothing more than the other animals on this planet, living to eat and sleep and reproduce so that our descendants can eat and sleep.

What an absolutely wretched existence.

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