Picture this: It’s the year 2021, and in a public square in Concord, Massachusetts a statue is to be unveiled commemorating the hero of the Second Revolution. The crowd is festive. Children run around and beneath the legs of their assembled parents. At a nod from the mayor, the cloth draping the statue drops away and the people begin to applaud, softly at first, then with increasing fervor.
Unlike Concord’s other iconic revolutionary hero, the Minute Man, this figure is not clutching a musket. He or she holds a paintbrush. Or a camera, a laptop or a guitar.
Right now there are almost as many guns in private hands are there are citizens of our fair nation. Anyone who thinks that force of arms will bring about our deliverance from the corporate oligarchy is dreaming an outmoded, tired dream. It may be the work of computer hackers instead. But I’d much prefer to see a non-violent insurrection led by artists.
Do artists have a responsibility to fight for social justice or is their first obligation to Art itself? Say what you will about the 1960s (and you have and you will), a large amount of writers, painters, sculptors, playwrights, filmmakers and singers were heavily engaged in the issues of their day: the anti-war movement, civil rights, women’s liberation, the American Indian Movement, etc. Today there is mostly silence as the stakes grow ever more urgent.
I don’t believe it’s a lack of zeal that constrains our artists today. It’s a lack of venues. In the protest era, there were scores of film distributors, recording companies, art galleries and off-Broadway theaters willing to provide social activists a forum. Over 50 years later the media are controlled by a few multinational giants who have no intention of rocking the boat. Prophets come and go, but profits are here to stay.
So where does that leave the artist of conscience? On the sidelines mostly, but not without options. The Internet, in its present state at least, is a powerful tool. The Powers that Be may hate the fact that your protest song or short film or poster has gone viral, but there’s not much they can do about it. Books like Rivera Sun’s splendid The Dandelion Insurrection are achieving cult status and being handed lovingly from reader to reader.
The spirit is there. It was apparent in the Occupy actions that took place across the country a few years. The slogans were catchy and the speeches were stirring. What was missing, though, was a coherent vision of what the protesters wanted to substitute for the system they decried. People don’t need to be reminded that things are awful and unfair. They thirst to know how to make things equitable and just.
I’m issuing a challenge to artists everywhere: unite and accelerate the revolution. It’s time for a new protest generation, one that focuses on solutions more than problems.
And to those who say they’re just not interested in politics. I’m afraid it’s too late, my friends: Politics have already taken an interest in you. A very active interest.