I’ve started to think making art is like owning a polo horse, or buying a Lamborghini in the midst of a recession. I’ll be editing a video and have this moment where I’m staring at Premiere Pro, and think: Christ, this is so stupid. Am I really editing and re-editing this same 30 seconds of footage when there are so many actual problems in the world? Did my grandmother survive a famine for this?
I feel like every kid with immigrant parents must have these moments of cognitive dissonance, you know? Like, you’re sixteen and eating a hamburger, and you realize, this hamburger is something that would’ve been completely out of reach for my parents growing up. I literally understand less about the world than an ant.
It seems to me like the vast majority of art—with notable exceptions, because there are always exceptions—is made by rich people for other rich people. I keep thinking about the 100 million people in China who work in factories, being paid pittance wages to produce the products that we live off of in the West in such dizzying excess. The computer I’m typing on. The jacket I’m wearing. The spoon I just licked clean.
There’s this twisted sense of parallelism, if that’s the word, when I think of these people in factories. Because I’m sitting here, living off the products of their labor, pondering the theory of art—but in a universe that is not too many shades different from this one—our places could be switched. And I can see exactly how that might have been, and the reason why I’m here is largely due to some combination of accident and sacrifice that was not my own.
I think people working in factories want to write poetry, too. But they don’t get to, you know? All these stories just become lost, and forgotten, and nameless, while we consume art that’s about—what was the Swamp Dogg album?—“Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune.”
And yet—the paradox is—I still feel that art is meaningful. Not all of it, of course. But there are songs; books; movies; sculptures; video games; gardens; so beautiful that the experience of them is like falling in love. That people will say, Hey, this thing? I’ve always loved this thing.
There has to be something that distinguishes stuff that matters, and the polo horses, and I want to know what it is. I have some theories—about music and movies versus modern art, and public art, and the Bean, but I don’t have any conclusions.
And I still feel enormously guilty making art and am also thinking about financial freedom. I’m going to try to finish the video I was working on now.
Elizabeth Feng is an ARC Spring 2021 Poetry and the Senses fellow. This poem was written while on fellowship.