A System of Politics and Art

A System of Politics and Art

We’ve all been told at one point in our lives to refrain from talking politics at the dinner table. Along with money and religion, politics has a tendency to make people finish their drink and prepare for an upcoming parade of arguments, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings.

 

We avoid this at my family gatherings, opting for more pleasant interactions over side eyes and passive aggressive comments. In the South, the art of avoiding uncomfortable topics has been nearly perfected, with any decisive comments hid under a layer sweet tea geniality.

 

So when I woke up in my apartment on my first day at The Washington Center, I was dumbstruck to walk into a conversation about race relations in America happening at the breakfast table. It didn’t end there either: every morning and most nights I would end up discussing the most sensitive topics I had spent my whole life avoiding in the name of civility. Now some of you might be thinking: “Noah, how could you not expect this? You’re in Washington D.C., the most politically aware city in the nation.”

 

And you would be right to question my naivety. However, I’d like a chance to explain a couple of the reasons why I am so fascinated by this city and its obsession with discussion.

 

A system of politics and art

 

Street Art

First, I’d like to talk about street art. I love street art because it is an opportunity for an artist to do two things at once. First, it is a platform for an artist to express their opinion, even if its inflammatory, unpopular, or uncomfortable. Complaining on Facebook is one thing, but throwing your opinions on walls that aren’t digital is something else.

 

The second opportunity that street art provides, which distinguishes it from other forms, is that it publicly invests in the society that it criticizes. Beautifying the streets it occupies with cultural criticism. Does it get better than that?

 

I see five pieces of street art on the way to work every morning, and every morning I am astounded because the city itself, the brick and asphalt, are screaming at me to think about the society I live in. You don’t get that much investment in other places. D.C. is full of people who openly care. As the mural above me so accurately describes, D.C. the city is “A System of Politics and Art." I love the idea that the two are inseparable, entwined in an eternal conversation between the public and those who represent us.

 

Art showing DC's rich musical history.

Street art in Washington DC

 

The Two D.C.s

Second, I want to distinguish D.C. the seat of government from D.C. the city. The two are not easily separated, as one might expect. Everyone here seems to either work on the Hill or has a connection to someone who does. If you ever come to D.C. you’ll hear plenty about the history, the scandals, the happy hour deals, and the architecture, but not much about the people. One of the most moving experiences I’ve had so far in D.C. (ironically) happened in a Starbucks.

 

After spending about an hour walking up and down K street in order to find a local coffee shop, I eventually succumbed to their hallowed convenience. As I sat down in the empty store I began to put my headphones in, but stopped when I heard an older man sitting alone in the corner reading the newspaper aloud to himself.

 

While reading the paper aloud he would add his own commentary, becoming noticeably upset whenever he came across injustices. To himself and whomever would listen, he would lament and provide surprisingly specific and biting criticism concerning the state of the union.

 

Within an hour, more people began showing up to for their afternoon pick me up, but the man remained, still speaking. A mother and her children sat near him, and the children began asking their mother what was wrong with that man, to which the mother replied: “He is crazy, and we don’t talk to him." I don’t mean to condemn this woman, she was only concerned with her children’s safety, but I do wish she could’ve seen what I had seen not an hour ago: A man, obviously struggling, but intelligent and caring.

 

I share this story not because it has an overarching moral or point but to provide an alternate view of our nation’s capital that is not scripted and presented by people with ties and sensible shoes. Yes, D.C. is the seat of our government and yes, sensitive political issues are common small talk topics, but that’s not all or even most of it.

 

I’ve only been here two weeks, so feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt, but often it seems that D.C. is only occupied by people in suits who can tell you how much the Dow Jones fell yesterday. But D.C. is actually more than interns and rooftop bars; it is a city, although an exceptional one, that has the same issues that arise in any place where this many people are gathered. The homeless man that I avoid eye contact with may have insight that my boss who works on K street may never give me.

 

So, while I definitely recommend the Smithsonian museums and The Kennedy Center, the really special thing about D.C. is that you can learn so much by watching the walls and sitting quietly in coffee shops. I chastise myself for not engaging in those initial breakfast discussions with my roommates, but I know that I’ll have more opportunities to change my ways.

 

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