Critical Theory

I find myself attracted to art that might be labeled “depressing.” Sometimes I fear I’m simply indulging my illness, looking for verification of the thought: “Life sucks and then you die.” In my sadness, the theory goes, I long for the sadness of others. Perhaps I’d be better off listening to Joel Osteen or binge-watching Little House on the Prairie.

At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy modernist, I believe that art can change the world. This doesn’t mean paint puppies, rainbows and butterflies. Authentic art depicts things as they are, exposes them as being socially constructed rather than natural, and suggests alternative paths to freedom.

A big part of my depression involves my tendency to be self-critical. I’m always looking to improve, sometimes to the point of exhausting myself in the mythical pursuit of Perfection. My internal critique extends outward, into social and political spheres. I’m not content with accepting things at face value. I ask questions and search for inconsistencies between what people claim to believe and how they act.

I’m attracted to “depressing” art not because I’m looking for an alibi for my sadness, but instead because I’m unhappy with the status quo and want to uproot entrenched cultural assumptions. It goes beyond my depression or the somber nature of contemporary art.

It’s life that’s tragic. It’s life that’s unkind.


In Love And War

I’ve been listening to Rage Against The Machine again. Yes, I know it’s not 1996. Some twenty years later I still admire their energy. Lyrics like: “Is all the world jails and churches?” and “Fear is your only God” serve as a call to arms.

The Revolution grand narrative to which the band attached itself implies cooperation and order. Oppressed persons from different regions and from different backgrounds would need to rise up together. But the world is chaotic and contains too many moving parts. People have conflicting interests; uniting behind one cause doesn’t mean that everyone will agree on other important issues.

We can’t en masse reverse the System, only protest against it at the individual level. Embracing the sentiment behind “all politics is local” is a good place to start.

Also, much of life exists beyond reason. There’s no quantifying impulse, desire, feeling. Scientific analysis of the spontaneous and sublime diminishes the already-fleeting intensity of the High. An actual revolution would take more brain power than muscle, and it would require a great deal of faith in unattainable degrees of logic.

Love is personal and irrational. It’s you losing your mind but knowing exactly what you’re doing. I meet someone who’s “on my side” and share my life with her. Talk about solidarity. I aim to satisfy the needs of someone other than myself simply because my “heart” tells me so. Now that’s dedication to a noble cause.

Releasing anger feels good, but there’s little to cheer about after the passion subsides. After years of sticking it to the Man, a band with rage in its name could use a little love.