“If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything. I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination that fulfills only the obligation of my personal dreams—which is to say yes, the work must be political. It must have that as its thrust. That’s a pejorative term in critical circles now: if a work of art has any political influence in it, somehow it’s tainted. My feeling is just the opposite: if it has none, it is tainted. […] It seems to me that the best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” —Toni Morrison
A lot has changed since Morrison penned that passage in a 1984 essay. These days, it’s hard to enjoy, much less take seriously, a piece of art that props itself up as sunny, apolitical, without social context—just look at the critical backlash against milquetoast TV show Ted Lasso, for example.
In fact, the Mercury didn’t set out to make a Fall Arts Guide package entirely about political art—but once we started to get a sense of what we’d be covering, that became the obvious theme. It’s true the Portland art scene has never shied away from political messaging. But in a year at the intersection of a pandemic, a mass extinction event, and local and national political incompetence, Portland arts institutions are taking even more of a turn toward the radical. So we have a look at arts venues supporting the recall effort against Mayor Ted Wheeler; a guide to a hybrid digital and in-person TBA festival that’s more relevant than ever, and a profile of a festival celebrating Black and Indigenous trans and queer art, among other things.
The powers that be want art to feel untouchable, abstracted, irrelevant to your daily life. The aim of this guide is to reverse that feeling. Art should be personal—and, in the words of Morrison, both “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful.”