Thursday, July 07, 2016

Activism and Art in America

A Marriage on the Rocks?

            As far as we know, Shakespeare did not take to the streets to protest the tyranny and injustice of the ruling class of his day. He did not write inflammatory pamphlets or confront
the nobility with a litany of accusations, demanding social change. He did not attack the Queen or her court for their pretentious foppery or point fingers at corrupt officials.
            Rather, he held up a mirror to his culture and showed us examples of tyranny and nobility which have served as moral beacons ever since. We recognize ruthless, naked ambition because Shakespeare wrote a play about such a tyrant in Macbeth. We recognize how personal tragedy unfolds when feuds between neighbors erupt out of control, destroying the lives of the innocent, because he wrote Romeo and Juliet.
            Does that mean that Shakespeare’s portrayals ended tyranny or fatal family feuds? Of course not. But we don’t hear critics say that Shakespeare’s writings and the subsequent performances of his works over centuries were just more or less meaningless talk. We say that Shakespeare was a major influence in western culture, articulating perspectives on a wide variety of experiences that we still encounter today in our collective and personal lives.
            Yet the demand upon artists persists. Don’t just talk about it, do something!
            This criticism of the poet’s role in society came up at the book release party we held last Friday, July 1, at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk, my artistic base since 2009.
            The book is A Conversation About Race Among Poets. It’s the collective work of six poets who met weekly for three months in the winter-spring of 2015 and, under my
From top-left, myself, Jack Callan,
Betty Davis, C.J.Expression,
Judith Stevens, Madeline Garcia
synthesizing supervision, created a performance out of our back-and-forth poetic exchanges. The performance got some local attention for its diversity and honest perspectives on race and race relations, and a video of the performance, posted on 
YouTube, attracted the interest of Kathleen McBlair, a friend who runs a small publishing company, Words on Stage. After a year of editorial collaboration between Kathleen and myself, the book was released last week with a special performance of some of its contents. (It is now available at for $10.)
            In a Q&A session following that performance, one audience member, while complimenting the quality of our work, criticized spoken word in general as ineffectual and, in a sense, self-indulgent. Talk is cheap, he seemed to say. We’re not doing anything of real value unless we’re taking direct action.
            Nathan Richardson, a local poet we all love and respect, seconded that sentiment and talked persuasively about spoken word as a preparation for non-violent protest in the tradition of the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King. As the mentor of Teens with a Purpose, a spoken word ensemble which performs regularly across our area, Richardson has done a great deal to draw out the talents of many young poets who might otherwise have been creatively stifled.
            But, he says, he is not training them as poets or entertainers but as activists because poetry is not enough to change society. Only non-violent direct action can do that.
            It struck me as a sort of cognitive dissonance that a poet would, in a sense, disrespect his art in that way. Are we poets wasting our time with our self-indulgent attention to a craft which is basically irrelevant in today’s tumultuous world of crisis after crisis? Does our art represent, at best, a preparation, a warm-up, a pep talk for the real thing in the streets or at the gates of the monolithic towers of power? Are we ineffectually preaching to the choir when we should be actively confronting the powers that be?
            Frankly, I have heard this dismissive point of view since I was in school, and I have to take issue with it. I certainly have no quarrel with Martin Luther King or Nathan Richardson on the call for non-violent resistance. I agree that non-violence is an effective way to resist injustice, bigotry, and, as JFK put it, “the officious state.” I believe, ultimately, that it’s more honorable to suffer violence willingly than to inflict it.
            But I have trouble with the argument that creating art—poetry, music, drama, fiction, painting, sculpture, photography—is not doing anything. In fact, I feel hurt by that suggestion. Not doing anything? Really?

Conversation About Race in Rehearsal

            In the summer of ‘64—after the Kennedy assassination and during the right-wing Goldwater Presidential candidacy—my wife Jala and I, freshly wed six months earlier, took a student flight to Europe, where we traveled around for three months.
            I didn’t know why we were going to Europe, though I’d been the one to suggest it. I told Jala the summer before if she’d marry me I’d take her there, but I don’t know why I even said that.
            But as the summer unfolded, it seemed clear we were called to Europe—as were many other student-age Americans at that time, with cheap, round-trip charter flights for $250.
            In Europe we discovered our deeper selves living beneath the superficial facade of American cultural naiveté.
            We arrived in Paris, spent a few days in awkward adjustment—my French was a laughing-stock pretty much everywhere we went—then we rented a car and headed west for Chartres—we’d heard of the cathedral there and were duly awed in its presence. We continued from there toward the beaches on the Atlantic coast. Beaches were a kind of security. They were all we really knew about how to spend a vacation. It’s incredible how dumb untraveled Americans are.
            We followed the French coast into Spain and down to Madrid, where our guidebook strongly advised a visit to the Prado Museum, one of the best art museums in the world, it said. So we thought, since we were in Madrid, we may as well go there.
            Only twice in my life have I experienced a major change of consciousness in a single afternoon. That afternoon at the Prado Museum in Madrid was one of them. The art that hung on those walls blew my mind.

May 3, 1808 by Francisco de Goya
Prado Museum, Madrid

            I realized that afternoon that I, too, wanted to be involved in the creation of beauty, drama, and myth. I, too, wanted to express ideas suddenly bubbling up inside of me, ideas I hadn’t even unpacked yet. I suspected—as time has proven true—that my greatest happiness would not be in the academic world I was preparing for but in the rough-and-tumble uncertainty of an artist’s life, where security is a joke.
            But that’s where I wanted to be. I couldn’t draw or paint, but I was already a decent writer, and way in the back of my mind, behind a curtain where I’d reluctantly left him after high school, was an actor contemplating a return to the stage.  
            I wanted to stay in Europe, but that was impossible, so we returned to the United States, as scheduled, in September, 1964. Since that time I have experienced over and over how little regard my culture has for artists. Entertainers, yes. Industry whores, really. But we honor them because, for one thing, they make a lot of money with their extraordinary talents, and we respect money and idolize glamor.
            But as a culture we don’t really respect art. We think art must have a purpose beyond itself, and as artists we often feel unworthy in America because the dedication and discipline it takes to create a timeless poem or story or song or character on the stage is not particularly valued unless there is a result beyond simple, elegant expression.
            In short, as a culture, we can’t let art be a good in itself. It has to have a utilitarian purpose to have value. Thus, we shame our artists because they aren’t “doing more.” We suspect they’re lazy or wasting time when they sit under a tree with a pencil and a sketchbook or notebook. (Time, after all, is money.) To me, that seems insensitive to the greatness that is embodied in the art of western culture.
            Leonardo, Michelangelo, Dante, Shakespeare, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams—were they not doing enough?
That's me in 2012. I protested a
meeting of Repub big-wigs outside
Harrison's Pier in Ocean View.
            My own defense of A Conversation About Race Among Poets, if I really need to make one, is that speech is action, especially potent with the care of craft behind the words. Why else would it be a Constitutionally protected right? It has consequences, it changes minds, it stimulates thought, it enables communication, and, in the action of putting together and delivering a performance, it creates solidarity among a diverse group of poets, which then extends to include an audience in a positive experience. In my opinion, that’s doing something, and for me it is enough. If anyone wants to take it to the streets after hearing it, that’s a choice. If any poet wants to take it to the streets after speaking it, equally good. I’ve done that myself. But no poet should feel inadequate for being “just a poet.” No artist for being “just an artist.”
            Activism and art are two separate disciplines. They can merge, they often do, but why must they? Has activism become a new group think, a new tyranny? I hope not! Is poetry ultimately the province of arm-chair philosophers and hypocrites? I don’t think so!
            Just as thoughts are things, speech is action. A prayer may be just as effective as a protest and a poem at least as powerful as a raised fist.
            I rest my case.


At 12:52 PM , Blogger Tom Ellis said...

Bravo, Delaney. I agree entirely!

Art needs no pragmatic or ideological justification whatsoever.
If it has any "purpose" outside of itself (which, of course, it does not, and needs not), that "purpose" is to induce contemplation--and thereby to humanize us, making us more aware, more empathetic, more imaginative, and possibly, more creative.

Figure it this way: who has more of an influence on the public consciousness (and hence on the corridors of power where policy decisions are made)? --a self-appointed martyr standing outside a gate, holding a protest sign and shaking his fist (someone generally ignored by the public and the corporate media alike)--or the author/performer of a fine poem, play, painting, sculpture, short story, or dance routine that touches one or more people to the heart, reconfiguring long-established attitudes and patterns of thought and behavior.

I distinctly recall when I taught a fiction-reading course as a volunteer at the Oregon State Penitentiary, many years ago, how after reading Huckleberry Finn, we got into a discussion of race and racism. These were tough, mean, marginal white guys (Oregon is mostly white) full of blatantly racist prejudices, yet one particularly tough, grizzled guy confessed "I've always hated N----, but after reading this, I'm beginning to realize that I only did so because my father did..." Wow!

Case in point.


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