It is easy to neglect the importance of art in difficult times. During times when we are under threat, especially when the threat is greatest, it is easy to neglect art. Our focus during these times is outward, not inward. We are outraged, shocked, and saddened. We fear for our safety and for the safety of our loved ones.
During times like these, however, art becomes more important than at any other time. Art helps us process our negative emotions. And more importantly: it helps us channel our collective rage into a form that can be shared with others.
The Art of Rage
Powerful emotions like those invoked in the wave of the 2016 Election can also be tools for channeling collective suffering into art. As for myself, I have been in an artistic depression over the past several weeks as I watched our country sink to a low I didn’t think possible by electing a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and completely unqualified demagogue to our highest national office. Like millions of my fellow Americans I have been watching news headlines in a kind of stupor as the horror of a Trump presidency slowly becomes a reality.
Then I remembered that my role as an artist is more important now than it was before November 8th. Artists are purveyors of a kind of truth, and I don’t mean that in some abstract philosophical sense: we represent what we see. Stories, emotions, images, lines, lyrics. The medium doesn’t matter so much as the effort to express things that are difficult to express, things that those around us may struggle even to understand or process.
By using the associational parts of our minds to convey the primal aspects of humanity: fear, anger, grief, lust, etc., we serve a purpose that goes beyond mere catharsis. We can help people make sense of the world when it seems to have gone mad. And making sense is the first step toward taking action.
The Art of Resistance
As we create art to process terrible events, we can also create something else: a response to those events. Consider the following found poem written in the wake of the presidential debates by Geoff Greer:
we had to take the guns away
from these people
that have them and
that are bad people
that shouldn’t have them.
These are felons and
these are people
that are bad people
that shouldn’t be…
Greer masterfully lampoons Donald Trump’s twisted and child-like logic, but does so simply be representing Trump’s own words. He lays Trump bare for all of us to see, simply by crafting his words into verse. Below is my own attempt at this kind of art, written as a found poem in the wake of Sarah Palin’s original endorsement of Donald Trump:
Here we are again, but it is not
the time–now–to begin
confabulating and doubting.
They have forgotten the main thing,
the main thing,
but now what they’re doing is wailing.
You can’t see it–
I see it–I do–I can—
because they can’t afford to see the status quo go.
Go where? Anywhere!
And now, some of them even whispering,
waiting, cursing, red in the face,
hugging their nurses and children
beneath the wide sun
showing what was America.
Otherwise, they won’t be able
to be slurping off the gravy train
that’s been feeding them all these years.
And speaking of trains,
trains carrying the hope and will
that are the core of what we need–
we, you, a diverse, dynamic,
needed support base, that they would attack.
Even, with accusations that are so false,
they are so busted,
the way that this thing works.
It’s a funny thing, the way
that this thing works.
Funny, ha-ha, not funny.
We could debate the relative merit of art like this, but an art of resistance is not trying to be art of art’s sake. It is trying to respond to the moment we are in. Only history will judge if it rises to the level of something that will last beyond our current historic moment. The point is to try to represent that current moment for those who can’t.
The Art of Outrage: Write Whatever Comes Out
During difficult times, it can also be difficult to create art at all. Just getting out of bed may seem like a chore. During times like these it can thus be important just to write whatever comes out, no matter how “good” it is. Without judging or denying our own thoughts and emotions, we barely craft them. We let them flood onto the page, canvas, or screen, worry about crafting them into something meaningful later.
Consider the following, written on a napkin during an airline flight after a young girl touched my knee, resulting in a traumatic flashback to my abuse as a child:
Ars Fucking Technica
Someone calls the police, but not all
At once, in stages. First altitude, dizzying
Stomach, cramps, sweating devices,
Red eye or feels like. Awakened
By my own right hand clutching left,
Violently the blonde girl across my lap,
15 or 35, drops a non-dairy creamer packet.
Modular carpet of Rocky-ridged clouds
Drain, backward thatch of fields,
The way things have changed.
What happens when breast cancer
Foundations find themselves on napkins?
The blonde is my cousin Nadine, riding
My rumbling buttocks vibrating
The metal-flake chair, her tiny breasts
Uncomfortably close to glancing
Ice-fragged window glass.
Momma arrives home from bookkeeping
A trucking company, finds us “playing”
Beneath the no smoking light,
Stoned on spray-on cattle disinfectant,
Afraid. Flecks of incontrovertible light
Dust sun motes, anchor groin to seatback
To fallopian wingspan, inscribing
A record of all known breaches of contract
Ettiquette and pedestrian mistakes.
The opening at the end of my cock
Grips like a pincer, momma’s rotting incisor
Glints near, an asphalt gem. Until I realize
They are, my fingers trace the electrostatic
Rim of a capacitive display assembled
By a 14-year-old Chinese girl
Whose quick wet mouth keeps her.
This poem is arguably not a very good poem. At least, I would later decide that it did not meet my personal standards for what I consider to be a good poem. After considerable revision, however, it would become the following piece, which I felt was good enough to include in my first book of poems, Familiar History:
First altitude, dizzying stomach, cramps.
Then cheap cups sweat. Red eye
Or feels like. I wake violently to my own
Numb right hand clutching my left.
The 9-year-old woman-child two seats over
Drops a non-dairy creamer packet,
Breaks the unspoken armistice against
Reaching over total strangers. Her tiny hand
Steadying her rests nonchalantly on my thigh.
The wisps of her dirty blonde hair
Are my cousin Nadine’s, lashed next to me
In a suicidally-maintained Dodge caravan,
My rumbling right thigh vibrating desperately
Against her left. The way things have changed,
My headphones jibe. The woman-child
Retreats, the non-dairy creamer belonging
Nowhere. Where is her mother?
Perhaps arriving home from bookkeeping
A trucking company to find us “playing”
Beneath the no smoking light,
A crazy ex-Green Beret
Who puts cigarettes out on his tongue
Her idea of a babysitter.
Maybe ice-fragged window glass
Is the only thing separating her
From certain adulthood, the modular carpet
Of Rocky-ridged clouds the distance
From child to parent. I suppose sending
Your kid on a solo flight is nothing compared
To the time Brian Whitlock and I
Painted armor on ourselves
With spray-on cattle disinfectant we found
Beneath the old steer chute.
We’re headed west to east, which after all these years
Still feels like going up the downslope.
During descent, flecks of incontrovertible light
Dust sun motes above the backward thatch of fields.
My point is, the above poem would never have existed had I not recorded the raw emotions triggered on that original flight. Not all art created during difficult times will result in something better later on. But some of it will. And this art will be recorded for others so that future generations can know what was going on in the hearts and minds of those of us who survived a particular moment in history.
Don’t Stop Making Art: Use It
I guess what I’m really saying is: now is the time for us artists to stir ourselves from our collective artistic depression. Now is the time to create, to fashion an art that gives others hope. Or a laugh. Or a compassionate look at pain inflicted. Or a reason to fight. I challenge any artist reading this post to pick up their pen, paintbrush, or keyboard. Tell the world what is happening right now for you. You never know how much your creation may stir the hearts of others, or what it may mean to the future.