Art in a State of Emergency
What is the artist’s responsibility in a time of political crisis?
IN MY EARLY 20s, I traveled with a group of visual and performing artists to El Salvador to learn from a storied human rights activist named Marta. It was November 2009, deep in the Great Recession. The inconvenient truth of climate change was beginning to sink in. Obama had not closed Guantanamo or ended the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. As humans, we were anxious. As artists, we wanted to be of use. We’d been introduced to Marta’s work through the chaplain at the United Nations, the mother of a friend, and we were impressed by how she seemed to be working locally and globally simultaneously, using a variety of tools—not just direct action or advocacy, but including, so we heard, the arts. We formed a group, calling ourselves “Artists for the 23rd Century,” and flew down to El Salvador for a week under Marta’s tutelage.
We stayed, a dozen of us, in Marta’s compound in Sonsonate, sleeping on mats on the stone floor of her open living room. There were strict house rules about everything from how to hang our towels to how to wash the cutlery; we were chastised harshly when we got it wrong. It became clear that the experience of living together was itself a central part of our education, an object lesson in how—as Americans especially—our carelessness and ignorance about the smallest of matters could be extrapolated onto humanity’s most stubborn problems.
During the days, Marta shuttled us around from place to place, meeting with this group and that. The groups were all doing important work on a range of issues, but the meetings themselves were strained. We found few applicable models and little common ground with the artists in Marta’s orbit, who had given themselves over completely to social work: running art therapy sessions for child victims of violence, or teaching impoverished rural women to make handicrafts from recycled waste. For her part, Marta seemed largely uninterested in what we did back home, if a touch repelled by the entitlement and indulgences inherent in being an American artist at all. And who could blame her? Here was a person who had put her life on the line, the only surviving member of a cadre of radical theologians who had congregated around Archbishop Óscar Romero and who were subsequently hunted down by the state. Her region still had one of the highest murder rates in the Americas. Multinational corporations were plundering the country and the world. There was real work to be done. We had great respect for Marta, and we had made considerable effort to be there with her, so it took us a few days to admit to ourselves that despite her prodigious insight into our responsibilities as human beings, Marta didn’t quite know what to do with us as artists.
I noticed my growing resistance to the rules of the house, the fanatical insistence on selflessness and communality. I stayed up late writing in my journal by flashlight, then slept in an extra ten minutes in the morning—the lone mat left in the middle of the stone floor, which my peers were already busy sweeping. Towards the end of the trip, I wrote in my journal: “I feel more and more sure, the more we talk about activism and change, that the goal for me is not revolution, it is art. I am not naïve enough to think that doing art is doing the work, but I don’t feel that it conflicts either.” It was the beginning of my sense that art and activism were two divergent paths, though since then, the state of the world has continually compelled me to try to reconcile them.
THE NEXT FEW YEARS I was a watcher of movements, nothing more. Occupy Wall Street happened while I was getting my MFA in fiction, and I spent a good deal of time at Zuccotti while being careful not to join anything. Then came the 2014 assault on Gaza. Within weeks, thousands of Palestinians were dead—whole families bombed out of existence while they slept. An ardent, if “liberal,” Zionist until that point, the nuclear energy I had generated around Israel could not be destroyed, only repurposed. Working it out in writing was not an option; I already felt desperately alone. Though I didn’t know a soul, I began showing up to actions and meetings with the newly formed Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, taking on as much responsibility as anyone would give me.
These past few years in IfNotNow have become an exercise in “arts organizing,” an opportunity to define the term through sustained engagement with the needs of an active movement. There have been some personal wins: moments where the movement made space for me to produce something I could be proud of—an evening of performances, a poster, a banner, a zine—and that inched the work forward in some unquantifiable way. But more often, the task of trying to graft my creative practice and concerns onto movement work has felt isolated and ill-fitting. Though I’ve found the activists I encounter in movement spaces sympathetic to the idea of art’s power for social change, the reality is that activists prefer traditional forms of protest—marches, rallies, direct action—over, and to the exclusion of, cultural forms, and thus, all human, material, and temporal resources naturally flow in that direction. Fair enough: these are effective and necessary tactics, and ones that activists are uniquely qualified to carry out. But even direct action itself, with its aspiration to spectacle, its myriad opportunities for performance and design and creative direction, is too often carried out artlessly, the imaginative potentialities reduced to the plane of a sloganed banner.
Early on, I pushed to make more room for the arts in IfNotNow because it was the way I wanted to spend my time in the movement. But as my praxis deepened, I became convinced that changing the culture around an issue—particularly when you need to organize people who can just as easily turn away—requires cultural tools. I needled our leadership: Who is attracted by 15 people standing in front of the Jewish National Fund with ugly signs? I asked them. That only looks fun to you because you’re activists—by which I meant, career activists, the kind who will likely never do anything else. The rest of us, I argued, need something more nourishing, more beautiful.
My campaign culminated this past winter in an IfNotNow arts retreat, which brought creatives from across the movement to LA for a weekend of visioning. The motto for the retreat was a quote from author and activist Toni Cade Bambara: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” We copied it onto butcher paper in orange Sharpie and hung it at the front of the room. But by the close of the weekend, many of the assumptions that powered the retreat had been bruised or punctured entirely: If I was being honest with myself, what the movement needed most in the day-to-day were ad agency-type skills—graphic design and video editing—which had more to do with the creation of propaganda than of art. Our collaborative workshops were some of our least successful activities, exposing the difficulty in facilitating collective creation processes in groups brought together foremost by politics as opposed to aesthetics. Not to mention that many of the more serious artists who had come through our movement—by which I mean, career artists, the kind who will likely never do anything else—had long cycled out in confusion or neglect, and weren’t sufficiently involved to attend the retreat in the first place.
I still believed completely in the need for artists in the movement—that if we could only start from a place that validated their orientation, we’d be able to harness their magic to everyone’s benefit. And yet I left the weekend—a weekend I helped organize!—feeling like finding a suitable role for artists in a movement led by activists was a classic case of square peg, round hole.
WHY DOES THIS RELATIONSHIP between art and activism—artist and activist—seem so fraught when it could be so companionable? Art and activism are similar sorts of vocations—that is, they are all-encompassing commitments to a certain kind of life. They are prostrate to higher values, motivated by desire for impact.
But there are logistical difficulties. Activism’s time requirements and group-based processes are often at odds with the quantities of alone time an artist needs to work. And until we manage to bring the revolution, the volunteer nature of so much movement work will continue to exploit artists, an already notoriously underpaid group. Artists are undervalued further by activism’s anti-elitist, everyman ethos, which often translates to an aesthetic illiteracy, and means that the relative powers of a skilled artist over a hobbyist may not be recognized or rewarded in movement spaces.
If the problem rested solely in these management issues, it would still be formidable, but not insurmountable. But there are deeper incompatibilities. In their mandate to be awake to life, and to awaken others, the sympathies of artists and activists seemingly align. But in the activist context, awake becomes “woke”—not a personal practice of observation and a transmutation within form, but a communal decision in service of a desired change. This “in service of” is the sticking point for artists; its agenda threatens to pollute authentic expression. Activism wants unity, it wants simple slogans and decisive rhetoric. Art wants things grayer, messier, and on personal terms. Activism demands allegiance. Art knows no allegiances save those of practice and form. Activists think artists are frivolous, and distrust them because they aren’t “with the program.” Artists think activists are myopic, and distrust them because orthodoxy is ugly and boring. Activism expects art to explain itself, to proffer a reason for being. Art just is; it doesn’t give a fuck what activism thinks.
In short, art and activism can almost be understood as two competing religions, serving two different Gods: activists, the God of Justice; artists, the God of Beauty (or Truth, if you trust Keats that they’re interchangeable). Though these two belief systems are not always at odds, they are simply not the same thing.
Of course, this does not negate the vast ocean of vaguely or straightforwardly political art. But it does seem as though, in order to succeed, each discrete piece must make a choice—art or activism—and form must follow function. While beautiful and haunting, the Chilean women dancing cueca alone to protest their husbands’ disappearance is activism. Angels in America, which debuted near the height of the AIDS crisis and talks politics endlessly, is definitively art. ACT UP’s political funerals: activism. Kara Walker’s disturbing silhouetted slavery friezes: art.
There is plenty that fails to choose. The majority of this work is as eminently forgettable as it is common. But we can identify some instructive examples. James Baldwin argued that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, credited with shifting public opinion on slavery, doesn’t hold up as a work of art. And there are also those exceedingly rare works that seem equally successful at both, often by using their form to bear a unique kind of witness, helping us digest enormous horror at the scale of the individual. Anna Deavere Smith’s theater about American race relations has this quality; so does Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing, about the Indonesian politicide of the 1960s; so do the “Photo Requests from Solitary” in this supplement.
Is this a pointless exercise, this attempt at untangling one from the other? Perhaps. But I make this interminable catalogue because, though I’m not confused about what I am—an artist—I am conflicted about how that relates to my overall responsibility to humanity. This list tells me I have to choose, while this particular moment in human history makes me fear it’s not enough to choose art. I take for granted that our current struggles need every one of us, giving what we can, and that artists, who know how to attract people, how to leach their message into a culture, how to bring people into contact with life, have a special role to play. But while part of me wants to approach this as an organizing challenge—what can we do to facilitate this uneasy relationship? How can we integrate the arts into our strategies and structures and absorb artists into our movements on their own terms?—the other side, the deeper one, knows that the framework itself, as determined by activists, is wrong—too dimly visioned and narrowly defined. This makes me want to build a fence around my sacred practice, to serve no one but the one true God, the God of Art, forever and ever, amen.
As long as the current realities persist, with traditional “activist” sensibilities ruling our political spaces, and capitalism pinching our resources, an artist who heeds the call to the struggle has a choice: to come into the movement as an extra set of hands, leaving her calling behind; to offer an artistic skill, if not the full scope of her artistry, submitting to the compromise of the agenda; or to decide that art is its own contribution, and to consider it parallel work. The last of these seems the most elegant and attractive solution, but are there moments when it’s simply unconscionable?
THE 2016 ELECTION was a terrifying moment of recalibration. Suddenly anything felt possible, if only in the most alarming sense. In this awful state of unknowing, the idea of spending my time futzing around with sentences, with the lives of made up people, seemed utterly deranged. I was not alone. A handful of articles compiling writers’ responses close on the heels of this catastrophe (presumably only for the benefit of other bereft and bewildered writers) attest to a near-universal rudderlessness, with a number of those solicited going out of their way to insist that Art is Not Enough—that, in fact, to protect art we needed to be in the streets.
A year and a half later and fiction in particular doesn’t seem to be recovering. In a recent essay in Literary Hub, literary agent Erik Hane laments the preponderance of Trump-addled manuscripts (“fascist regimes, stolen elections, unhinged presidents, and the looming threat of nuclear war”) dominating his slush pile: “These authors are not writing the political moment so much as the moment is writing them.”
This appears to suggest that now is Not the Time for Art. And yet, as Hane alludes to in his essay, the gripping experience of creating or enjoying art is one of our greatest weapons against the concession of our inner lives. In this time of constant, dizzying assault, when our hypervigilance to current events has given way to mindless scroll, there may be as much value in knowing when—and how—to look away.
Artists know this instinctively; their compulsion to create inevitably leads them back inward, fortifying them against present falsehoods, and keeping them in touch with a range of feelings besides exhaustion and fear. Mahmoud Muna, who runs the Educational Bookshop, a Palestinian cultural and literary center in Jerusalem, recently told me, “Art is not going to liberate the people, but it can keep them sane.” We can dismiss the political expediency of a novel, a sculpture, a song (even a music video), but all we have to do is picture the claustrophobia of life without it, the clichéd speeches at identical rallies, the endless fearful outraged scroll of activist Twitter. The Bund boycotted performances in the Vilna Ghetto—“In a graveyard, you do not do theater”—but in a matter of months, the performance halls were once again full, leaving Hermann Kruk to remark in his diary, “life is stronger than everything.”
KNOWING ALL THIS does not make it more comfortable to spend whole days at home pushing around the paragraphs of this essay while others are out protesting family separation at the border. I am tempted once again to resign my post in shame. Fuck art, I think. Give me bodies on the line.
Then I remember that in those first dark days after the election, the only thing to pierce the terror, to lend any comfort or clarity, was a poem by Avrom Sutzkever from 1943. Written from the Vilna Ghetto, “The Lead Plates at the Romm Press” documents the decisive moment of melting down the plates of the venerable printing press for bullets:
A verse from Babylon, a verse from Poland,
Seething, flowing into the one mold.
Now must Jewish grit, long concealed in words,
Detonate the world in a shot!
At the time, it struck me as an answer of sorts, as much in the lines of the poem as in its provenance: So there is a time to leave off the production of culture, and we should make sure to be on call. And yet, what a way for the lesson to reach us. In a poem! Written only after the means of production have been destroyed. Written with no way of knowing whether it will survive—with or independent of its author. Written in the literal, liquefying heat of that moment, not for the moment, but for me, three quarters of a century later, so I can feel the longness of time, the relentlessness of Darkness, and the triumph of an endurance that takes many forms—in this case, that of a poem.
And indeed, the Twitter chorus reminds me that these immigrant detention centers were built under Obama. Zoom out farther, they say, to see the pattern, America’s long history of family separation, the tearing apart of black families on the auction block, the kidnapping and reeducation of Native American children. Remember, Roosevelt turned away the asylum-seekers on the St. Louis, sending hundreds to their deaths.
Forgive me for finding—in the context of this argument—a perverse kind of comfort in this. If we’re not litigating art’s value, only whether it becomes more or less important in relation to a current crisis, it’s helpful to remember that, in a broad sense, none of this is news. Camus wrote The Stranger from 1940s occupied Paris, nary a Nazi in its pages. Shall we insist that there would have been a better time to write it? Should we relegate the calculation of its value to the time of its creation, or pit this sum against the lost value in what the author might otherwise have been doing?
In a conversation in this supplement, Israeli artist Hadassa Goldvicht suggests that “art is a form of prayer,” creating change in the world at a similar energetic frequency. “I make my work with great fear because [...] I very much believe it changes the world,” she says. We don’t know what is born and released in our little acts of creation, how the wisps move through time and space, gathering speed, dispersing, re-collecting, putting pressure, lifting up. The problem with art is not that it’s ineffectual, it’s that it has no seismograph. Though we may be shaken by current events, we mustn’t forget that our work as creators is slow and subterranean, more like the dramatic millennial movement of tectonic plates than any individual earthquake.
For many of us, that may suffice. And for those of us who still feel the pull to a more direct form of activism, perhaps there is an opportunity, not to organize with the activists, but to organize ourselves as artists, to form our own revolutionary groups in the tradition and spirit of the Situationists, taking as a starting point our tools and tactics, building around our mandates and strengths.
In El Salvador, I was sure that my goal was not revolution, but it was only because its means were presented to me as something outside of life, something that might take me away from my life as I knew it had to be lived. But we will keep more people in our movements—not only artists—when we make them inseparable from life, when we can effectively use culture to change the fabric of reality. To be sure, activists have a role to play in our processes; they can hold us accountable, so we don’t end up exclusive or complacent or toothless. And we can serve them better, too, in a manner that does not depend on our self-negation or even selflessness, but on our talent for transcending time and shifting ground, for remaking the future in our image.