Artists are people, too. And like all other people, we, too, have our character flaws, blind spots, annoying idiosyncrasies and moments of ill-considered dopeyness. We are not immune to tunnel vision and can fall, like our fellow humans, into tightly clad ideologies that ensnare our works into tightly clad postures. And sometimes, because of our thoughtlessness, our creativity and our work have been used for such things as propaganda and ideological glorification (The Nazi Propanganda film Triumph of the Will comes to mind), for underscoring stereotypes and prejudices (westerns like Canyon Passage), for propagating misconceptions and lies about historical and current events (how about those happy slaves in Gone With the Wind), and for oversimplifying life, distracting us from the
things that should be demanding our attention (much of television springs to mind, although I do admit, a reasonable amount of distraction is necessary for our sanity).
Yes, artists are people, too. And like all people, we have a point of view we adhere to and a point of reference we work out of. That said, the questions are, should we strive toward neutrality in order to avoid the aforementioned “perils”? Is that even possible? And do we want that? Well, let’s be clear. Artists are not journalists, whose responsibility it is to be objective and dispassionate. We are not here to preach and proselytize, nor to be impartial bystanders, disinterestedly analyzing life’s innerworkings. The idea of personal distancing is useless to us. Our willingness to be personal and subjective is our greatest asset. Our willingness to react emotionally and passionately is the thread that connects us to our surroundings. And our willingness to feel the anger, fear and hatred of our fellow human beings as well as their joviality and contentment, then focus on what lies below it, gives our work depth and opens in us the wherewithal to portray the psychopath as well as the free
spirit, the traveler as well as the town dweller, and all those motley members of the human race in between, while projecting their universal human complexity and sameness. So the answer is a cautious “no” to all three questions.
“The artist cannot hold himself aloof!”
While visiting Spain, in the throes of their civil war in 1938, Paul Robeson made this statement. Continuing on, he said, “……… the artist is challenged [and] the challenge must be taken up. For this culture, a legacy from our predecessors, is the foundation upon which we build a higher and all- embracing culture.” These idealistic words call to the artist to embrace his/her/their access to the emotions of the multitudes, embrace their ability to stir those hearts and share an elevated world vision. All ye artists! Rise up with the crowd! Stand on the soapbox of your labor! Testify and make noise for everyone who will and will not pay attention! In 1949, when Paul Robeson stood in the midst of the miners in Scotland and sang “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night”, he gave voice to their economic, social and political plight, identical to his own, capturing in one song the struggles of generations. One senses the kinship they felt and understanding they shared, even through the film lens of 70 years past. A transcendent moment. The horrors of lynching, captured in mournful observation by the poet Lewis Allen. Billy Holiday wailed her sadness through the words and soulful melody of “Strange Fruit”, the meaning was clear to all who heard it.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Her shout was the whisper of her voice. Her soapbox was a single stage light darkening all else around her. Her testimony was enclosed in a carefully orchestrated moment finishing out her program for her safety, leaving audiences with an indictment of remissness. There was danger in speaking this truth. But she spoke it and as an artist of great integrity and courage, she did not abandon it.
Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!*
Writer and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe could not remain quiet about the barbarity of
American slavery. I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for the first time about 8 years ago. As a teenager in school, I protested the book along with many of my fellow students without ever having opened it. In those days to be called an “Uncle Tom” was one of the worst insults in the black community and nobody wanted to touch that hot potato. And we wondered, in our young and rebellious manner, what a white woman could possibly have to say about slavery, a subject so personal to us. But in my more mature years, I decided it was time to read this work that had more impact on events than we then guessed. Surprising myself, I cried several times as I read it. But more importantly for me as an artist, at a certain point, I knew the book was not meant for me or the African-American community. She wrote this book for an oblivious and uninformed white community, many of whom may have had good hearts but had either distanced themselves from this reality or just weren’t looking. This was a call to Harriet’s community to recognize the depths of evil in a system that was destructive to all those it touched.
Hear the call and see through my eyes.
Like Harriet Stowe, all writers create characters through whose eyes we see, and through whose experiences we feel. In the realm of social justice and change, we are hit hard through those characters with the reality they endure through abusive institutions. Charles Dickons gave us Oliver Twist to illuminate the hardships poverty ravages on a family, what suffering it visits on a child and how people are driven to lives they would, in other circumstances, have avoided. He gave us Ebenezer Scrooge as a rich man, heartless and unfeeling, who feels justified in his avarice. But Dickons also shows us the source of his very real pain and his road to redemption. Victor Hugo gave us Jean Valjean whose criminal transgression was due to his destitute circumstances, but even after living an exemplary life, receives no mercy from the law. He gave us Fantine, tormented by those around her because she has had a child out of wedlock – trapped in a moralistic society that has lost
generosity of spirit. In Harburg and Gorney’s song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”, a leitmotif for the 20 th century depression, a working man turned beggar states sad bewilderment at the abandonment of his country that he has given so much of his life for.
Keepers of the mirror
We hold up the mirror and tell the world to look, behold its reflection and its truth. This is as an enormous responsibility, and all of us have to work hard to live up to it. Like the journalist, we must research and explore. Like the preacher, we must look to the spirit of participants and events. Like the therapist, we must search for the heart. Like the town dweller, we must sense the impact of community. And like travelers, we must acknowledge the universality of the living soul. Our work should not make people stop thinking but encourage them to start. Our work should open the mind to questions and curiosity. And at times, we can allow the conversation to begin with our own questions. Have you seen what is going on? Is this how we want our world to be? Sometimes we have to take a chance and take a stance on what we think is right. And if we’ve done our homework, maybe we will be taking another step in the direction of Paul Robeson’s “higher and all-embracing culture.”
*Augustine St. Claire in Uncle Tom’s Cabin