Art, a Verb for Hard Times

book on gold meme

During the last few weeks of what has—inaccurately—felt like unprecedented social, political, and moral turmoil on a global scale, I have found it difficult to stay focused on writing or writing about creative interests of any kind.

While everyone watched unfolding disasters in Gaza, Ferguson, and West Africa, I felt compelled to put away personal thoughts and pursuits. I began to comb through news outlets I usually avoid, monitor live web feeds, and doggedly follow each morning’s round of commentary.  But anything I had to say about it all was also just commentary, hardly in the creative vein. And I began to feel terrible about my creative silence.

While I was in grad school, there was an emphasis on the artist’s responsibility toward raising social awareness by taking up the banner of humanitarian activism.  I heard that call, but have never been sure how to answer it.

Although I have clearly defined views about various issues that plague the world, unlike many of the writers, musicians, and artists I have admired for taking public stands for love and compassion, I have never found my compositional-political voice.

In personal venues, I have no difficulty engaging with others and sharing my views. I’ve had enough face-to-face-offs and online troll fights to clarify my perspective, and in doing so I’ve weeded out “friends” who seem to think that hate speech is something to have a conversation about, as if there could be a give-and-take discourse about whom it’s okay to lock out of hope (nope, I won’t take that). So I know I can confidently express myself.

But artistically, I have never known what the hell I have to offer in that way. My attempts at social commentary have seemed ineffective, self-conscious, preachy, clumsy…I’m not a political artist and that has always made me feel a little sad, even guilty, especially during times of seemingly heightened conflict and tragedy.

I say seemingly heightened in order to acknowledge the inaccuracy of that panicky feeling, the one insisting that the world has never ever been this bad. In reality (not suggesting this makes anything that’s happened recently or that will happen in the coming days and weeks any better in any sense) lots of bad things have always happened, often lots of terrible things have happened at one time, and those who can stand up and illume with their art are always needed. Always.

So I have been thinking about the ongoing nature of unrest and how necessary art activism is in a world that forgets to preserve its own life force. And I’ve been looking for my role in all that.

But I think I must have gotten so wrapped up in roles and in the pain of witnessing the moment, I forgot that I already knew the answer to this personal and professional puzzle: Art is by its very nature a radical act.

Art pushes back against the bleakness, the corruptness of inertia. It unseats unwelcome dominion over the spirit. Art is radical reclamation of energy. If we create, write, paint, whatever, we’re creating a light source. It will have all the properties light always has, to warm, to vitalize, to reveal the hidden.

Whatever I write about and whatever I paint is the only activism I have, and it’s enough no matter what it is. We are bombarded by the attitude that art is superfluous, even silly, a self-indulgent waste of time in a world of hurt. I am saying that’s a lie. Creating your art in a time of adversity is a rebellious act of beauty. Of course the pain hates to give an inch, as if it were conscious—doesn’t it seem so? But that’s precisely the time to lash out in a wave of creative purpose, no matter—not a single matter—whether your art is an event statement or simply a lyrical movement along the subtle body of your work.

When times get hard, when it’s all falling apart, I have to try to remember, though I am not a political artist, art is medicine to treat the locked jaw of the crisis mind. Art can mock or proclaim, but it can also just as effectively siphon strength from the ideological machinery of misery. Art rises. So, artists, you don’t have to be working on a statement piece. Please just get out of bed every day and art. You will have reclaimed that drop of creation for the whole good. That’s activism, baby.


About metonymicalpen

I earned an M.F.A. from Goddard College in 2013. Since then, my work has received the 2013 Beacon Street Prize in Short Fiction and the 2014 John Steinbeck Short Fiction Award. My stories have appeared in REED, reDivider, The Concho River Review, Sou'wester, Moon City Review, and elsewhere. Currently, I live in the desert with my family , but I am trying to move us closer to water. We need an ocean to float all of our ideas.
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2 Responses to Art, a Verb for Hard Times

  1. judiwth says:

    “We have art in order not to die of the truth.”
    ~ Freidrich Nietzsche

  2. Interestingly, this didn’t sit well with everyone and only very recently I’ve gotten some negative feedback that I chose not to include on the page because someone saw themselves and their views as my “week of turmoil” in the news and wanted to vent in the pejorative voice. So they gave me a bad star, which I’m taking as a sign I managed to say what I needed to, or at least nearly so.

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