The Private and the Political

From Doris Salcedo’s Disremembered series. These sculptures are made with raw silk threads interspersed with more than 12,000 tiny, blackened needles. “Handwoven thread by thread and needle by needle, each delicately beautiful but menacing garment embodies a painstaking gesture of mourning.”


I’m not the only one stymied. Many of us are struggling with we how to manage the interior and the exterior: Defending the sovereignty of creativity (and its nursery-like need for quiet) while navigating a toxic political landscape from which no citizen of the earth should step away. This battle has become a difficult daily exercise for me. I care about both domains, but they are not amicable bedfellows.

Some artists can combine these concerns in their work. Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo‘s exhibit at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, The Materiality of Mourning, is a powerful statement about the victims of political violence and war. Her work is a muscular critique of oppression by way of works that possess an extraordinary delicacy and vulnerability.

But many of us work in a non-representational manner that, by design, lives outside a prescribed narrative or response. The political and the personal don’t cohabit for us as they can in Salcedo’s work.

Poet Charles Simic‘s latest collections of essays, The Life of Images, offers some help in managing this conundrum. Born in Belgrade in what was then Yugoslavia, he grew up in a world at war. “Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I’m still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.” Simic has deep credentials as a poet and a survivor of political violence.

In one of the essays in the book, “In Praise of Invective,” he addresses the essential tension between the body politic and the interior domain:

At the end of a murderous century, let’s curse the enemies of the individual.

Every modern ideologue and thought policeman continues to say that the private is political, that there is no such thing as an autonomous self, and if there is, for the sake of common good it is not desirable to have one…Orthodoxy, groupthink, virtue by decree are the ideals of every religion and every utopian model of society…Ideologies from nationalism to racism are not really about ideas; they’re revivalists’ tents offering a chance to the righteous to enjoy their sense of superiority. “We will find eternal happiness and harmony by sacrificing the individual,” every congregation of the faithful continues to rhapsodize.

He goes on to bring his fierce defense of the individual into the sphere of art making:

Historical experience has taught me to be wary of any manifestation of collectivism…Young poets and painters do associate and influence each other and partake of the same zeitgeist, but despite these obvious truths, what literature worth anything is written by a group? Has any genuine artist ever thought of himself or herself exclusively as a part of a movement? Is anyone seriously a postmodernist, whatever that is?

I don’t find systems congenial. My aesthetic says that the poet is true because he or she cannot be labeled. It is the irreducible uniqueness of each life that is worth honoring and defending.

It is easy to take an artist’s deferment from political action. That’s not the answer, and Simic’s life is a model that informs my own. Like him, I don’t find systems “congenial.” But being a witness and taking action against oppression are not in violation of my devotion to the inchoate inner life that is my work. How this plays out is a work in progress, like so much else in life.

5 Replies to “The Private and the Political”

  1. Diane Franklin says:

    I too am struggling with this issue as are most of the artists I know. My own response has been to furiously work on the first political piece I’ve ever made. It’s an abstract piece but I’m hoping that it will convey the strong feelings of discord I’m seeing around me. While making this is helping a little, it is still not alleviating my deep fears and anxieties as I watch each day unfold with more horrendous Cabinet picks and more disgusting tweets. I fear that making art will not be enough in the near future. But I’m still waiting to see where I can plug into some more organized resistance. I fear that a solely private life may not be an option in the near future.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Diane for this.

  2. Thank you ,Deb. Once again you are able to write so much of how I am feeling. I saw sculptor Doris Salcedo‘s at the Guggenheim last year. I found the exhibit terrifying. A thousand tiny cuts!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Di. I so appreciate you as my cotraveler on this road.

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