The morning after the presidential election, I sent this e-mail out to some of my friends who work in the arts:
As artists, we spend much of our lives reacting, be it to overly authoritarian power structures, mistreatment of the less fortunate, or worldviews we find to be corrupt and disingenuous. It strikes me today, after surrounding myself for the last twenty-four hours with like-minded individuals who shared their hugs and their fears and their tears, that we have another opportunity to consider.
History is dotted by periods of hope and prosperity, intermingled with long stretches of fear and doubt (Fortuna’s Wheel according to The Confederacy of Dunces). The “role” of the artist in these periods is remarkably consistent – we inspire, we create, we paint pictures of the core values as we see them, we mirror society back to itself so that it can fix its hair, straighten its tie. But last night, listening to Barack Obama give as stirring a speech as I’ve heard in recent memory, rubbing the chills away from my arms, I felt that I wanted to redefine my work. That, instead of railing against social injustices, pointing out the lack of clothing on the Emperor, or howling to the moon about the corruption, greed and intolerance shaking society’s fabric, I would try and lead from the front. That maybe, with history on our side for once, we should all try and lead from the front. For now, hope is a good four-letter word. For now, education is a good nine-letter word. And intelligence is an asset, not an attackable offense. For now, change is in the air and tolerance is sweeping the nation (Prop 8 aside). For now, artists can speak about the world we wish existed and not waste brain cells combating what we see to be the dominant power structure. Maybe, after all, it’s us. Maybe it’s been us all along. Progressive groups thrive on persecution – it’s how we identify the other, how we know who to rebel against. From the second century Christians to the Beatnik poets, small, subversive groups are where change (good or bad) is initiated. We’re all used to it. We all expect it. It’s how we wake up in the morning and put ourselves to bed at night. But maybe, for now, we can let gross, ridiculous optimism trickle down from the top in an equation even Reagan couldn’t have predicted. Maybe, for now, we can act like this is OUR world, and force the corporations and business-minded to conform to OUR rules. Maybe, for now, we lead by example and stop sniping from the hilltops. Maybe, for now, our art means something different than it once did. Maybe, for now, we stop acting like we’re the minority, stop acting like we need to shout to have our opinions heard. Maybe, for this moment, we can try something new… after all, we have the rest of history to topple the corporate beast. Right?
Peace and Love to everyone out there following your dreams… you were the real winners last night. (well, you, Al Sharpton, and MSNBC…)
I’ve been thinking more about this issue, partly because the letter was unsatisfying – I only managed to hint around the edges of what I was attempting to say. The problem with letters and blogs is that they are free, unedited, briefly lighting upon issues that, upon revision, would be highlighted, fleshed out, made clear. My last post, for example, only discovered what it was really about in the final paragraph – the notion that some groups mean their votes more than others… and that doesn’t show up in simple polls or elections. That is something we only find out post hoc.
What I meant in my letter is this: It’s easy to be an artist for hire. The path is clear when you’re forced to write to put food on the table. Even the reactionary path, though more complex, still has clearly defined subjects, targets, and concepts that are begging for rebuttal. But what I find horrifically challenging are those times in your life when you are beholden to nothing and no one. When, for a second, you aren’t worried about your next paycheck. When the world seems to take a breath. When you are confronted with the sheer awesomeness of the subjects available to you. This is when it’s difficult to be an artist- when we also have to be leaders. And I think that now might be one of those times. We blasted open the illusion of workable socialism. We’re seeing the widening cracks in the free-market capitalist system. We know that we want equality, freedom, fairness and progression, but we don’t know how to get there. Some books (The Shock Doctrine, for example) help us to re-envision the past in a more rational light, help us to see that maybe there are workable alternatives to the dominant economic structures of our time. But art has a role here as well. Fiction, music, fantasy—the acceptable paradigms are shifting, and I truly believe that as the “radical” artist becomes “mainstream,” that society is pulled along with him/her. The “centering” of America has been dragged towards the right by media figures like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity- men who repeat talking points enough that they begin to seem reasonable. We forget that humans are creatures of habit, creatures of remarkably poor psychological construction. What we are familiar with is what we find comforting… even if we are made to be familiar with hate, bigotry and isolationism.
I’m rambling again, but there is a reason Hollywood is called “liberal.” There is a reason that novelists, artists, musicians and poets vote with the Democrats (Mamet and Frazier excepted). It is our voice that pulls society back towards progress, away from pure capitalism, away from the sterility of an economically-defined world. Perhaps I am overstating our responsibility. After all, we’re just story-tellers, right? But wouldn’t you rather err on the side of incredible light than passive mediocrity? Isn’t it more exciting to imagine that what you create affects the world, changes society, empowers people? It’s like a less-lame Pascal’s Wager. Let’s assume we’re responsible for the direction of the world, take those keys, and turn the whole damn thing around.
This is what frightens me. The thought that this could, even in some miniscule way, be true.