Today as we celebrate the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., millions of Americans will reflect on the impact his life had. That impact, for many, is very personal. There is much for which to be grateful in the gifts of hope and justice that he left behind. For me there was a speech that was particularly transforming. It was his public entry into the anti-war movement, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. As a twelve year old peace activist and an aspiring artist, one sentence stood out and helped to shape the next 40 years of my life:
“We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.”
That’s one of the first recollections I have of perceiving art as an act of conscience and rebellion. Prior to that I drew a lot of superheroes and hot rods (I was twelve, after all). I had become radicalized, and I knew that at least part of my work had to be devoted to making a better world. A couple of years ago, as a blogger, I put down some of my thoughts and frustrations in this regard.
In Creativism – The Rise Of The Art Insurgency, I presented the case for employing the arts in social movements. My intent was to inspire an uprising of artists to fight back against an ever more repressive culture. Virtually all of the political dialog in this country is limited to politicians and pundits and a media so shallow that a gnat couldn’t bathe in it. Creativity in support of social change was once not a particularly odd concept, but with the rise of right-wing neo-Dark Agists badgering artists to “shut up and sing,” it has become a more hostile endeavor. Artists, however, are not surrendering ground and art lovers should not either. Solidarity with creatives is paramount for progress. They are the emotive flank of our army.
The value of art in movement building stems from the uniquely personal relationship that binds us to works of insight and honesty. Speeches and op/eds will never evoke the intimacy of artistic expression. That’s why, despite protestations of the Cultural Imperialists, artists remain relevant and influential. At it’s best, art inspires, motivates and unites. It’s even better when it incites and provokes.
There is irony in the fact that complaints come from conservative repressives when it is mainly conservatives that blur the lines between creative and public aspirations. While there are many liberal artists that express political views, they rarely run for office. Unlike conservative gate crashers like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, George Murphy, etc. Still it’s conservatives who complain that liberal artists are crossing the line and, with an Olympian feat of denial, they never harbor similar complaints toward their own kind. Sean Penn, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie are interlopers who should know their place. But Chuck Norris, Dennis Miller and Charlton Heston are patriots and public policy experts whose input is invaluable. As I wrote in Creativism…
“The time has come to restore the dignity of creativism. We must beat back the repressive forces that would prefer the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. We must recognize the power that speaking the truth brings to our world and ourselves. We must support our creative advocates.”
To that I would add that we must persist in producing thoughtful, provocative work that leads us to a world with more liberty, more peace, more justice, and fuller hearts and bellies. We must confront the censors and the bullies who fear our voices and would silence them. And we must seek new and aggressive forms of distribution that spreads our messages from the Internet to the Interstate and beyond. As the activist/artist Vladimir Mayakovsky said:
“Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere…on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops, and in the workers homes.”
And as Dr. King declared, we, as artists, must be prepared to match actions with words and use our talents to manifest a world that reflects our dreams.