When I realized that I desperately wanted to leave my social service day job and work for myself, doing something that I loved, I was confronted with a dilemma. In social service work, I spent every day helping impoverished people, making a difference. How could I do this as a “for-profit” venture? I decided to coach, and to specialize in coaching people who wanted to make a difference by starting non-profits or social entrepreneurships. I’d also coach people who wanted to make a living in the arts, since this community felt like my “tribe.”
And I’d segue into writing part of the time. But up popped that dilemma, again. What good does writing, or any art, do to heal the overwhelming problems of human suffering and environmental disaster that this planet faces?
Here is my answer to that dilemma. Really, I’d absorbed this understanding throughout my life. But I needed to think it through, spell it out, write it down, for myself.
Art can expose issues literally and graphically.
The most obvious answer is that an artist can very literally illustrate or write about suffering and solutions to it. This was my “easy fix” to this dilemma – I know a lot about social issues, and can easily write about poverty, homelessness and housing issues, unemployment, mental health and neuroscience, and “green” jobs. I love research, I know how to interview sources, and so it’s easy enough to write about other important issues. My current novel- in-progress deals with mental illness and homelessness.
My favorite, stark illustrations of the realities of poverty come from the Depression era photographs of Dorothea Lange (Migrant Mother, 1936, is pictured above), and Jacob Riis’s 1890 book of photographs, How the Other Half Lives (see photo excerpted below).
Visual artists have clearly illustrated the horrors of war, as have writers, songwriters, playwrights, choreographers. The sculpture my daughter created as her senior art project, which I featured in last week’s post, was an arrangement of “paper” cranes into a mushroom cloud, and was about finding peace and hope in the midst of war, chaos and horrific circumstances.
Think: All Quite on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun (the book that made me a pacifist), Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Blowin’ In the Wind, Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, Goya’s The Disasters of War.
Feel free to add your own favorite examples of anti-war and social justice-oriented art in the comment section. There’s an endless array.
Art is provocative – it helps us to confront and explore difficult questions, and to question our own actions.
How do we know right from wrong? This is not such an easy question. In making many decisions, we are confronted with gray areas.
I recently wrote a story called “Flawless”, published on my “wordjunkie” blog (http://www.bonniejj.wordpress.com), about a woman who has been involved in killing two people – actually committing the second murder. Both could be considered “justifiable.” But even though I created this character, I don’t feel entirely warm feelings toward her. She’s a little bit cold. She’s self-centered – with good reason, considering her life and what she has suffered, but still. And killing has perhaps become a little too easy for her.
And is this the case any time we find it necessary to take an action to protect ourselves, whether on a personal or national level? Justification of violence is a slippery slope – terrorists and street criminals often believe very firmly in the justice of their acts.
Nations resort to violence on often sketchy bases: consider the variable “reasons” that were, one after another, used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq following the 9-11 attacks. Iraq wasn’t responsible for the Twin Tower attacks, but when the 9-11 acts didn’t hold water to support a war, other “reasons” were invented (i.e., the aluminum tubes as “weapons of mass destruction”) and then proven to be without merit. In the end, the U.S. resorted to the excuse that we needed to rid Iraq of dictator Saddam Hussein – yet the U.S. had previously provided weapons to help Hussein remain in power.
When nations or individuals make up their minds to commit a violent act, they will grasp at straws, if necessary, to defend their violence.
Can even our non-violent defensiveness become too easy? Personally, I’ve cut several very negative, toxic relationships out of my life. I don’t regret doing this, but I have to admit, I’ve become a little too watchful and cautious about the relationships I get into because of it – after all, it’s easier to drop a relationship at the first sign of potential danger, right? On an unconscious level, I think that I may have written “Flawless” as a cautionary tale for myself, a warning to myself to not go overboard with my self-protection maneuvers.
This is an example of just one little story provoking one type of question. But art does this on a continual basis. Art is provocative. It forces us to confront and think about issues that aren’t always as simple as they first appear to be.
Art teaches us empathy, and helps us to feel a sense of connection and oneness.
The first time I can vividly recall feeling empathy for a story character was in early grade school when I read The Hundred Dresses, Eleanor Estes’s Newbery Honor book published in 1944. This is the tale of a young girl who is a poor Polish immigrant with one dress that she continually wears to school. Her classmates tease her because of this, and because of her odd last name. The child defends herself by insisting that she has 100 dresses at home. The other girls confront her each morning, mocking her and demanding that she describe her dresses.
Her father decides that he needs to move her away from this school, but not before the teacher holds a drawing contest, in which each of the girls is to design a dress. The girl in question turns in 100 beautiful designs and awes the other girls with her talent – but she has moved away before the girls see her drawings and realize that the dresses have existed all along, in their victim’s vision. The girls are remorseful and write a letter of apology, which they hope will be forwarded from her old address.
Literature and art can put us inside the mind of another human being (or animal, for that matter – consider Black Beauty and Watership Down). We feel what the character feels, and I’m convinced that art contributes greatly toward our development of empathy.
And empathy, in turns, helps us to see our similarities, to feel the oneness of our humanity and the “Godness” in all of life. As Carrie Newcomer, whose music often provides the soundtrack for my life, joyfully sings, “Everything Is Everywhere.” And I believe that this understanding is, ultimately, what will save us.
Art expresses what is in our hearts and inspires us to action.
Just try to imagine the protests of the 1960′s without the protest songs and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches (which were as literary as any poem). Would they have happened? I have my doubts.
I am continually inspired by music – again, singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer writes In I Heard An Owl :
“Don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves
The whole world weeps and is weeping still
Though shaken I still believe
The best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love.”
Art provides us with roses to go with the bread, insists that we must dance in the midst of the revolution.
The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike is sometimes known as the Bread and Roses strike, and won higher wages for the extremely exploited textile workers who worked under very dangerous conditions. It was led largely by women. The poem by James Oppenheim that inspired the “bread and roses” phrase says, in part:
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for– but we fight for roses too!
And Emma Goldman wrote in 1931:
At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.
Try – just try – to imagine the room you are in with no art. Bare, drab walls, desktop emptied of all but the stark essentials, no books, room stripped of every artistic touch. Imagine your life without music, stories, or movies. What a barren wasteland! I would suggest that, beyond the survival instinct, there are two major incentives that encourage us to carry on with life, regardless of our circumstances: love, and art.
And when we encounter dramatic loss of love or anything else, it’s the cry-in-your-beer songs, the humane words of Anne Frank, the colorful whirl of the dance, that commiserate and envelop us and move us to hope for love, or justice, once again.
What do you see as the meaning of art in troubled times?