Political Art

Old poem.  Reposted tonight just because it felt right, in this moment, to think again about the limits of political art — dates back at least to 1999, 2000?  Appears here in the “Poems From The Slam Years” page. Has also appeared in various anthologies over the years, and various journals as well.


a print of “Guernica” hangs on the foyer wall
above the drink table
here are the famous horse and the upraised human face
they’re screaming as the hors d’oeuvres are passed

and on the facing wall
behind the buffet
hang two photographs
carefully chosen for tonight

in this one is a girl we have seen before
running and burning on a road in Vietnam years and years ago
back then she was trying to fly to safety
on the innocent strength rising along her fiery arms

in this one is a man we’ve also seen before
and despite his death in 1890 he also keeps trying
but he’s frozen awkward and insolent in his attempt
to rise from the snow at Wounded Knee

we are making small talk tonight
clicking our tongues at all these pictures
making crestfallen small talk
because we know we should

handing over money
to save Afghani statues from the guns of rapists
handing over fistfuls of green guilt
for the anesthetic of aesthetics

buying permission to posture unflinching
before those who have fallen
permission to shelter in these picturesque memorials
in the hope of receiving from them some kind of prophylactic grace

as we stare at the burning girl
as we sadly regret Wounded Knee and genocide
as we admire the abstraction of that burning Spanish town
we will click our tongues

while marking the skill of the artist at having those faces
seem so stark in their angled black and white
seem so shot through and through
with an undertone of subconscious red

it’s from this we’ve learned how to watch the news
the news that gives us each day our daily dread
a new crop of victims to be cropped and photoshopped
and we know just what to do when we see the faces

we observe
we regret
we remark
we move on

tonight there’s a gallery fundraiser
tomorrow there will be another
we’ll see the burning girl and the rising corpse again
and we’ll make another print of “Guernica”

do we need to keep making
all these prints
of “Guernica”?

someday we’ll see
that if we had been changed by all this art
at the first hint of genocide we would smash our cameras
hang our paintbrushes back on the wall

stick our checkbooks back in our pockets
lift the paintings from their frames
and carry them through the streets
to the places of power calling why


if the people inside our work could speak
they would tell us that if witness alone could change the world
the world would be changed by now
and we would have no need to keep learning

that this picture
of that girl
is not


About Tony Brown

A poet with a history in slam, lots of publications; my personal poetry and a little bit of daily life and opinions. Read the page called "About..." for the details. View all posts by Tony Brown

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