Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
We live in confusing and difficult times. Dissent is in the air and a daily part of local and national news. Creative types may be thinking about taking part in this dissent. I’m currently reading Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, by Murray Polner and Jim O’Grady, a biography of the two Jesuit priests who were activists for peace and social equality. The Berrigans were non-violent but at the same time they were aggressive in their public activism, burning draft records and vandalizing military hardware, among other things. It got me thinking about different forms of non-violent protest and how we can creatively disrupt systems or events we consider oppressive without causing harm to others.
Of course, singers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, are well known for using their music to express political and social activism. Other genres of music have been used to demonstrate for a particular cause (think George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, Live Aid, etc.). One of my favorites is Not in Our Name, an instrumental jazz recording by the Liberation Music Orchestra to protest the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated non-violent demonstrations, responding peacefully to real or threatened violence. Peaceful demonstrations have long been a method of protest, from individual efforts such as Rosa Parks’ choice of a bus seat to large-scale efforts like the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam or the Occupy movement of more recent times. This might seem like a fairly
straightforward venture, but creative choices have to be made that balance the disruptive impact of the demonstration with the risk tolerance of the participants. To what extent is it acceptable (or is it ever acceptable?) for public or private property be obstructed or damaged? And is that decision influenced by the prospect of civil or criminal charges and a possible prison sentence? Sometimes demonstrations that don’t involve people can have considerable impact, such as the Eyes Wide Open exhibition created by the American Friends Service Committee that used combat boots and civilian shoes to personalize the loss of military and civilian lives in Iraq.
Writing in all its different forms has long been a creative method to critique social inequality. Marc Blitzstein’s pro-union play The Cradle Will Rock was successfully staged in 1937 despite efforts to halt the production. Poets, playwrights, essayists, and novelists from James Baldwin to Margaret Atwood have used techniques both obvious and subtle to attack sacred cows.
Any creative form is a possible means of expressing disruptive ideas. A friend from years ago had an impressive collection of paintings by contemporary artists from southeast Asia. I was not even aware of my own internal bias toward painting as the purvey of caucasian Westerners. This art was created by people who had experienced colonialism, war, and poverty as part of their daily lives, not as abstract historical events that happened to other people in distant places.
While the southeastern art seemed disruptive, that was only because it expressed life experiences completely foreign to me. Many of those works were not deliberately provocative, merely acts of creative expression by the artists. Protests and demonstrations, directly dissenting books and music, they can all be moving experiences. But to what extent do they cause change? It’s widely accepted that large, frequent antiwar demonstrations helped bring about the end of the Vietnam War. But in the years since then, have we become so immune to voices of dissent that it is more difficult for us to open our minds to system change? The Occupy movement generated considerable public attention and inspired rallies in numerous cities. But I’m not aware that it led to any real change regarding income inequality or corporate exploitation of the working class. Are James Baldwin’s powerful works being read by the people who
would most benefit from his insights? (Or, conversely: While white supremacy is a deal-breaker for me, I’m not sure how we combat it without understanding the root causes, which will surely require going beyond labeling individuals as bigots or other, unprintable, terms. I can’t argue with the condemnation of white supremacists, but at the same time, that doesn’t seem to be turning any tides. My feeling is that some people who ally themselves with these types of movements might not be committed to a particular ideology so much as simply lacking the critical thinking skills to direct their anger and frustration appropriately.)
Maybe some of the most subversive creative efforts are those that are not overtly disruptive at all. Questioning the status quo without bringing attention to the act might seep into more minds in the long run. I grew up in a politically conservative state that has turned in an ugly direction in the years since I left. As unlikely as it seems, I’m convinced one reason I didn’t follow that divisive political route is because of Star Trek. I didn’t just watch Star Trek for entertainment – for me, it seemed obvious that we should strive for a future where people worked together for a common good. Popular entertainment like the TV show Modern Family might do more than open confrontation to “normalize” a society where we are all equal. The work of photographers like Elliott Erwitt – without even trying – can illuminate the fact that differences of geography, gender, skin color, age or religious practice are nothing to be threatened by.
So if you wish to direct your creative expression toward “subversive” ends, consider your goal and your audience. A subtle approach might be more effective in reaching the very audience that needs your message most of all. On the other hand, preaching to the choir may not win new recruits, but it can inspire and unify all of us who believe the struggle is necessary and worthwhile. Creative works – whether you are creating them or absorbing them – are about more than entertainment or self-interest. There may be no more important effort than to contribute a voice to the vital issues of our time. If you choose to direct your creativity toward that effort, be thoughtful and compassionate, and make your voice count. If you become discouraged in your efforts, it won’t hurt to remember the words of that great subversive Walt Whitman:
O Me! O Life!
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here – that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.