The love affair of art & politics-and the culture they create

The chase. The game. Love it or hate it, love it and hate it. Choose to play, choose not to play. There’s no getting away from it. Our existence depends on relationships and our fulfillment on how well we play with others.

Today, I’d like to invite you to play a game of make believe.

Let’s imagine that the artist and the politician are the Mom and Dad of society, two idealists with (big egos and) the dream of creating a life together. The communication and balance of power between them can teach us a lot about what kind of culture they’ll create, either together or in spite of each other.

There’s the charitable relationship of art and politics. Mom throws the best dinner parties and Dad always supports what she’s doing. The family does a lot of charity runs and bake sales. The house is always warm and well decorated and the gratitude aplenty. The Jones are jealous of how good we have it. There are still homeless people outside, but that justifies our charity even more. Dad feels important and Mom feels needed. It’s how things have always been, and as long as things are stable, we have no need to question, critique, or innovate upon a working system, so we go with it.

Of course, eventually the problems are more than the feel good stories can mask. Why? Well, it’s funny. Turns out, it has nothing to do with this Mom and Dad (at first), but with what others either don’t have or maybe don’t even want. People start asking questions. Ahhh, gossip and comparison, the beginning of the death of happiness. It’s funny how you don’t worry about problems until people start pointing them out. Mom begins to ask if she should have done something different with her life. Both parents worry about how to preserve their image. Society at large starts pondering different ways of being.

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This leads to a transactional partnership of art and politics that talks a lot about equality and fairness. It’s a practical marriage, but it always feels a little tense and manipulative. It probably didn’t help that we had to sign and agree to a lot of Terms & Conditions, a liability waiver, and a prenuptial beforehand (but, you know, just in case). It also probably didn’t help that we exchanged “keeping up with the Jones” with tit-for-tat-measure-for-measure. Anyway, we probably didn’t agree to enough policies, because it’s obvious that the politician still wears the pants, even if the artist does the talking. But it’s the best picture of equality we’ve got so far, and who’s going to tell Mom she’s getting used for her ideals when she finally has an identity built on her ambition rather than on raising the kids? Who’s going to tell Dad that he’s not the man he says he is?

The arts become a part of our economic infrastructure via propaganda, advertising, and mass media. Despite what the campaigns say, we know where the walls of this box are and whose sandbox we can’t make comments about, even if our company is new and doesn’t have cubicles or a verbalized hierarchy. We either become brainwashed and complacent with how we’re told to behave or disgustingly adolescent and contradictory to resist control. Your choices as a kid growing up in this generation are between being a sheep and a black sheep.

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Now we’ve got a bigger problem. Things weren’t always easy, but at least they were clear when Mom and Dad had set roles. We knew it would get harder when we challenged the status quo, but it would be more gratifying…right? But now we’ve got unclear roles and ideals that we’ve failed to live up to thus far. We’ve maybe even become a part of the problem. It would be a really good idea to talk things through at this point, but now we’re ___ years in. There are kids and money in the mix and a reputation to maintain. The smallest disruption could send us tailspinning into a catastrophe.

Sure enough, the marriage of art and politics falls apart in a dazzlingly dramatic spectacle. The couple fights openly and shamelessly in front of the kids and tries to get them to pick sides. The respect in this relationship is dead. Neither party was actually ever fit or ready to be a parent or a leader, but the position at least looked good on paper.

Mom turns to any avenue to protest and blast her voice and cutting criticisms: graffiti, caricatures, satirical papers, poetry slams, the classic breakup song. Her story will not be silenced. Her ex-husband politician used to love her wit. Now, the jokes are a little too close to much more painful truths. He writes policies and launches campaigns trying to censor or shame her. He didn’t used to be a bad guy. His intentions were good and once upon a time, he, too, was living up to someone else’s expectations before trying to set his own on others. But we’ve forgotten that as this affair became a quarrel. Now, both parties waste their time telling the other to change or to justify his or her value. Anxiety runs high. Blame is rampant. Issues become very black and white. One parent fights for anarchy while the other fights for militance. One fights for expressionism while the other for utilitarianism. Side with one, and you’ll automatically reject the other, without considering whether this is truly an either-or situation. Are we striving for peace or staying at war? And are we talking about war or just how to win the next battle? Are we creating something new or just destroying what someone else has made?

If you can’t relate to either parent, you’ll repress or hate where you come from. The irony of harboring hate, of course, is that you’ll for damned sure remember the impression it made on you. And some day, just like how you lacked respect for all the dogmas and actions of your parents, you’ll grow up to face those same ticks and tendencies in yourself that undoubtedly came from your upbringing. You might then become a pessimist or at best finally grow a sense of empathy.

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But before you let your ideals give into harsh reality, there’s a shift that makes it possible for art and politics to work together.

There comes a point when we learn both to acknowledge and accept the baggage and damage done. We need to make peace with the fact that yes, it should be easier than this, but it isn’t, and since we can’t take back the sins of yesterday, we have to start focusing on today.

It doesn’t matter whether we are the powerful or the powerless. We need to understand how empathy works without falling into the trappings of pity. We need to recognize when staying in a bad relationship becomes as much our own choice as someone else’s. We need to let go of pride and shame alike, to know what we can and cannot do on our own, but also what we are willing to learn to do, so that others can truly help us. We need to understand how to be honest and critical without being disrespectful, of ourselves or other people.

We have to stop comparing this relationship with the good and bad of others’ and our own experiences. We have to learn to build for the new, and to know that letting go of the old does not have to be the same as exploiting, disrespecting, or being ignorant of it. And for us to truly live up to the morals we recognize internally, we have to know what our goals are.

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From here, the artist and politician can become equal partners and leaders, and we see the greater effect of the example they set for anyone willing to pay attention. It is about the example we choose to set, in whatever roles we play. Positivity and negativity are equally contagious, though neither are overnight phenomenons.

We see change begin in our willingness to forgive others’ flaws as we address our own. We see it when we can each let go of control of the outcome of things, not because we don’t care, but because we have the building blocks of trust. We see it when we can set standards–without matching them with judgments.

We see change when we stop creating and abusing loopholes in a system of messy policies that were designed to protect us but in the process failed to educate us. We see it when instead we create policies that foster collective responsibility rather than drive oppression and stalemates. We see it when honesty is a gift and a given from the individual instead of the demand of surveillance, of fear in the name of safety.

We see change in how people care for public and private spaces. We see it in when cities that shut us up and shut us down with noise, ads, and sales pitches give way to ones designed with artistry, when our surroundings beckon us to look and listen, to flow and rest in rhythm rather than stop and go in discord. We see it in our culture’s readiness to appreciate beauty, and integrate it into daily life rather than categorize, monetize, and institutionalize it.

We see change in the style of our learning, in how interdisciplinary we are. We see it in how well we understand the relationship (rather than the conflict) of creativity and logic and of intellect and emotion. We see it in our language, in how comfortably and expressively we communicate when we trust one another. We see it in how we playful we are, in how confidence grows when people don’t take themselves so seriously.

We come to understand how passion can be quiet and peace can be vibrant. The crazy thing is, when we look back, we don’t remember the pledges, the campaigns, or even the courtship dance. We just remember having a life.

**I spend a lot of my personal time writing and playing with different ideas and storytelling structures. It’s not hard for me to write a few thousand words and I usually make time to write on most days. Having said that, while it’s a fantastic exercise for me, it’s hard for me to know whether what I write is always productive or worth sharing. This blog post is a byproduct of these writing explorations. Feel free to let me know what works and what doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’ve called this place “Learning to See.” It’s as much a reminder for me to keep learning as it is a way to share what I’ve learned with others.

How to comfort your mother and still be true to yourself

My mom, like most parents, worries about my happiness and wellbeing, which means she spends a lot of time thinking about me being unhappy and unwell. Funny how that works, right?

She worries about me being alone and unfulfilled. It’s one of her favorite topics to analyze and rehash. I appreciate the intent, and when we don’t agree, I can usually find a nugget of either philosophic or comedic gold in what we talk about. My mom is serious as hell, but that’s also what can make some of the stuff she says really funny.

For one thing, my mom thinks that artists are a different species, which as far as I’ve been able to tell, is incorrect. But then it’s pretty common for generations to misunderstand one another (e.g. Google “Millennials” right now), and if you’re not justifying why your job should exist then you’re justifying why you’re the person for the job. People love to have something to prove or disprove.

Jenie Gao portrait
Professional headshot.
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Not professional headshot.

I went to Mexico over New Year’s, and in my attempts to be a good daughter, I made sure to call before leaving and after returning.

Her (before the trip): “So I’ve been thinking about why you’re still single, and I’ve come up with some ideas….”

Me: “Umm…can this wait?”

Her (after the trip): “I’ve figured it out! You just haven’t met the right person yet! You know, I’ve been thinking about whether you’re even ready for a relationship and what the purpose of a relationship would be at this time in your life and why you’ve ended things in the past….”

Me: “Jesus Christ!! I was just on an airplane and then a bus. Can I get a ‘How are you? How was Mexico?’ We haven’t talked in over a week. Can’t you start with something lighter or more positive?” I experience a deep moment of self-awareness and embarrassment as I say this. I’ve been known to start discussions on the human condition over Saturday brunch and a hangover. I think I know where I get it from.

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Nature and nurture win this round. #selfawareness

My mom keeps going, “Do you think that anyone knows how to love an artist?”

I’m tired, but I give in to the fact that we’re having this conversation and that it might be overdue karma. I say, “No, but I don’t think anyone knows how to love a manager or an accountant, either.”

She asks, “Do you think your ambitions will get in the way of falling in love with someone?”

I say, “Well, I didn’t used to be worried about it…but you and society at large stress like crazy about this stuff, so, yeah, now I do worry about it.”

“Don’t blame other people for your problems.”

“…I wasn’t, but well, okay, then no, I don’t think ambitions should get in the way of love. Sometimes I worry about how my life decisions might have to change for someone else, or how scary it is to ask someone to change his life for me, but then what I’m asking for in life doesn’t seem all that complicated, either. So theoretically, as a competent human being who likes other competent human beings, I should be able to figure this out with someone.”

She asks, “Do you even think you know what you want to do with your life?”

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That’s a big question.

I say, “Usually. I have my doubts, but I think I’m pretty good at working through them. I want to do challenging, creative work that I’m proud of with people I respect, in a place I enjoy living. I want to make art. I want to write books worth publishing, and then actually publish them. I want a cat, a dog, and eventually a husband and maybe a goat. I want to spend a lot of time outside and traveling. These all seem like reasonable desires that aren’t terribly restrictive in terms of location or my skill sets. They don’t seem at all like mutually exclusive possibilities.”

She says, “That’s your problem. You don’t worry enough.”

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The face of genuine concern.

I respond, “Maybe so, but I think a lot, which surely has the same benefits minus at least a little of the emotional turmoil.”

She says, “I’ve figured out your other problem. You’re cold. Just because you’re not anxious about things doesn’t mean someone else isn’t. Aren’t you worried that you should worry about what other people worry about?”

“No…I mean, I worry about stuff, but then I realize that most of it is unimportant, and I think people in general worry about a lot of unimportant things.”

“I think that’s why you’re still single. You know, men are babies. It’s fine if you don’t care about answering to someone else right now, but you’ve got to learn to be a bit gentler and agreeable one of these days.”

This is my gentle face.
This is my gentle face.

I say, “I disagree. I don’t think I’m cold and I don’t want to date a baby.”

She says, “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Men are a lot more delicate than you realize. Anyway, it’ll prepare you for motherhood. What about kids? Don’t you feel like having kids will give your life meaning?”

want to say, “Not really. I have a hard enough time figuring out whether I’m making good art or just doing a lot of stuff that society didn’t ask me to do. I have friends who get excited about having kids and that’s great. I like kids. I think I’d make a good aunt. But I’m nowhere near interested enough in parenthood to be able to explain to someone someday, ‘Sorry, kid, I was horny one night and I really didn’t think this one through. So now you get to deal with this ‘meaning of life’ question that after tens of thousands of years of human civilization we’re still agonizing and warring over. I know you didn’t ask for it, but me and this dude decided that the best solution to the world peace problems we couldn’t solve was to delegate, to create someone new to deal with them once we’re gone. In other words, you’re a deadline extension. No pun or dark humor intended. Good luck.'”

But I already know she won’t find that very funny, so instead I say, “Not really. I don’t think having children will resolve any of my current questions.”

Stephen Hawking gets where I’m coming from:

“I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” – Stephen Hawking

75% of me thinks if I created life, it would be in that image. The most convincing argument for having kids that I’ve received so far has been the movie, Idiocracy, like okay, maybe I should consider adding my two cents to the population pool to avoid dystopia. But I might actually lose motherly points for admitting that.

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My dad used to tell me, “Quite frankly, you’re lucky to be alive because I’m lucky to be alive.” And now I exist to make my mother suffer. :)

My mom says, “I’m not saying you need to have kids right now. I know you have a lot of other ambitions. I know you can do a lot of good. You have options that I didn’t have when I was your age. I’m happy for you, that you can be so independent. I started working in a factory when I was 14. My whole life has been supporting other people. Before I met your dad, I never thought I would get married or have kids. But even though he was a pain and you’re a pain, I think it would be a valuable experience for you. Just don’t be so quick to think you won’t change your mind.”

“Okay, fine, I won’t.”

“Do you ever wonder if you should have been a man instead?”

“No. Society doesn’t require me to wear pants in public and that’s fucking awesome.”

My mom asks, “Well, you know that I love you even if I don’t understand you and even if I think you’re a jerk.”

“Thanks…I appreciate that.”

“I know I’m not good at giving compliments.” As she says this, I make a mental note to work on that myself. “But anyway, I’m not worried about whether you can take care of yourself. I do worry about how much you’re like your dad. He had a lot of big dreams, too, and they hurt him. When he failed, it just crushed him. He worried a lot about other people’s opinion, which came from growing up during a difficult time and having a lot of bad people in his past. People who didn’t want him to succeed. I don’t know why people are so nasty.”

I think and say, “Yeah, it’s true, he had a lot of the wrong people around him. I wish that weren’t the case. I’m never surprised but always amazed and grateful at what a difference that makes.”

She goes, “I just don’t want the world to crush you or for you to lose hope, and I especially don’t want it to happen if you stay alone. If you fail at your dreams and stay single, what will you have?”

I try not to notice how unbelievably depressing that question is and say, “Well, but, Ma, I have a lot. I have great friends. I love where I live. I’ve worked hard and been responsible. I know what I have. I also know what I don’t have that I would like, but I don’t think having limits or conflicting desires should get in the way of being happy.”

She continues, “Your dad got scared of looking stupid as he got older. I do think one reason you do better is you’re not afraid to look foolish…though sometimes I think you would benefit from being a little more worried about that.”

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Not worried enough. This is how to look fat.
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And how to look skinny moments later.

“He could be so depressed sometimes. But then I also always knew when he was in a good mood. He would come inside the house and say, ‘Yuan-yuan, do you know what the most beautiful sound is? The sound of a horse chewing grass. I could spend hours listening to that sound.'”

When she says stuff like that, I miss him. I find myself wishing things could have been different or better for him. So then I think the next best thing is to do what he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. I wish more people loved him, though he grew up in a difficult time period and was pretty out of place in the politeness of the Midwest. He had rough edges and could be cutting and unsympathetic as hell, but to his credit, he never treated me (or anyone) like I couldn’t handle it. And he was hilarious, which made him easy to forgive.

I wish more people loved my mom as well, that she didn’t have to start working at 14. I wish she told her own story as much as she tells his. My dad lucked out to find a heart as good as hers. In the telling of his story, sometimes we both forget to mention that.

Sometimes I think about how moms worry and nag and dads also worry and nag but then tell jokes, and I wonder if the world needs more feminists or funny women. (If anyone tries to argue that we need more feminists for women to feel comfortable being funny, sod off. We’re not root causing this shit right now and you–man or woman–shouldn’t wait for permission or a 501(c)3 to be funny, especially in a developed country.) My mom still wishes I were her little girl, even though I never lived up to her expectations of little girls. As far as my dad was concerned, I was a fighter and a jester made in his image.

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I look just like him in this picture!
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You would have made such a pretty lady, Dad.
Jenie Gao artist portrait
No, seriously. Those are totally your dimples.
But I straight up look exactly like my mom in this one it's not even funny. Maybe it's true all Asian people look alike. (I'm just kidding.)
But I straight up look exactly like my mom in this one it scares me a little. Maybe it’s true all Asian people look alike. (I’m just kidding. Don’t take me too seriously.) But in truth, what I’m saying is my mom makes a pretty lady, too.

She continues, “Do you think you’re hard for someone else to love?”

I think for a moment and say, “I don’t think I’m hard to love, but I can be a lot to take on. I won’t deny that.”

“Are you afraid that you’re too honest?”

“No, I worry about not being honest enough. I’m too much of a ‘silver lining’ person sometimes. I think if anything, more people should worry about how to be more honest. The world can be a bitter pill, and people give it a lot of sugarcoating. But maybe we as people need more practice in tasting and taking our medicine.”

“Are you afraid that the more you put yourself out there, the more you set yourself up to get hurt or judged?”

“No. If people don’t connect with this story, then it wasn’t for them. If they do, then maybe it’s helped them stop hiding or holding onto something. As for judgment, people are always judging others, no matter what you say or don’t say, so you may as well say and do what suits you. If someone can love me as much as you do without understanding me, I’ll consider myself lucky and think they’re a decent person. And if someone can love me as much as you do and also understand me, I’ll consider myself really lucky and hope they’re only half as fucked up as I am. Not for my sake, of course, but for theirs. Hell, for my sake, I’d love for them to be even more batshit ridiculous than I can even dream of being.”

“Do you ever worry that you’re too transparent?”

“Not at all. Transparency is my favorite color.”

#trueselfie
#trueselfie

**Special note: Yes, my mom reads this blog, and yes, we talk about the posts. After my dad passed away, she asked that we always be honest with each other, because if we can’t be honest with our closest relative, then we can’t be honest with anyone. It sucks sometimes and I struggle with it, but in the long run, I’m glad that she asks this of me and think it makes me more fair with other people, too. Also, I’m pretty sure I have my mom to thank for some serious stamina in interviews and meaning-of-life discussions.