How Shall We Speak? – an artists role in making a safer world

-Bill Harley – author, songwriter, storyteller, ASK Director

Many artists draw a distinction between their political and artistic selves, and for understandable reasons. We may speak out for something, even as artists, but keep our art away from making direct expressions of a political position. Many artists want their art, even art with a particular perspective, to reach as many people as the art allows, and don’t want a political stance they have to keep someone from considering their work. In many instances, a piece of art is bigger than a political stance, or might transcend it.

But in some cases, that’s not enough – there’s the question of how we express what has become a political concern in our art. And by politics, I don’t mean a particular political party or philosophy– I mean a concern for how our culture expresses itself in society – how we negotiate and communicate, how we apportion resources, how we live together, and with other beings on the planet.

I leave aside, for the time being, the question of whether an artist has a duty to speak. That’s a discussion for another time. What interests me here is – If an artist feels she must speak, how does she do so?

This is a particularly important question for those of us concerned with gun violence, and even more problematical for those of us who create art for children. It’s a challenging dilemma.

It’s a lot harder for people who work with children and families to know how to address gun violence in performance or presentation. And how do we make people across the spectrum engage in a discussion? How to we get them to think through their position? How do we create change?

Our Audience – Who and Where

There is a continuum of art in terms of public and private experience. A concert with ten thousand people in attendance presents a framework different from a book of poetry being read by one person at home. A small gallery show by an array of artists speaking for gun sanity plays differently than an installment in a very large public space. Depending on the reach of the piece, the nature of what is presented can shift. In any case, an artist taking an outspoken stand can feel vulnerable and threatened, or affirmed and encouraged. The venue the piece is presented in is as important as the content of what is presented.

That said, it seems to me there are three kinds of pieces we present as artists with a particular social or political concern, with gray areas and overlap between all of them. I’ll look at them briefly here, as a way to open a discussion about how artists can respond.

Prophetic Art

One approach of a concerned artist is of outright advocacy, or protest: Standing up and sharing your vision in bold terms through your art. In that context, it’s a little easier to frame the piece – you can make a direct statement and let the chips fall where they may. This kind of art speaks very clearly and powerfully about the situation – direct in what it means and what it wants. This kind of art may divide – and in some cases that may be what’s required for change. Naming things is one thing that artists do, and a piece that takes a strong stand outlines what and where the divisions are – it can define the terms of the debate and ask the audience to choose. A polemical piece like this is most usually offered to an audience that is on the same page as the performer – it is a rallying cry. That piece might be offered at a rally or fundraiser for a cause. Or in a location where the majority of the audience feels the way the artists does. Si Kahn, a great songwriter and activist said to me once, “My job is to sing to the choir.”

Those of us who write books engage in a more private performance – the art is being expressed to one person at a time, and in this case, a polemical stance may not be as much of a problem. (Not to say books can’t get you into trouble. Ask Salman Rushdie.)

But still, the best polemical pieces will divide people. The polemical piece shows the artist in some prophetic stance – that is, not prophesying the future, but speaking truth to power, knowing and intending that feathers will be ruffled. We speak what we believe because we have to – not as a calculated offering, and not in a safe setting.

For instance, a number of years ago, during the height of the Iraq War (and the height of its popularity) I performed a pointed version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in Orange County, California for an adult audience. It was different from an audience in a left-wing coffee house, where I would have met with roars of approval. I saw the audience divide down the middle as I performed it, and was met at the stage door by a whole group of very angry people. (No pitchforks, though). I knew I was annoying people. I knew the audience wasn’t all of my opinion. I don’t like dividing people, and didn’t like what I felt I had to do, but at that point, I felt that I had to say something – the Emperor’s war had no clothes. I was licking wounds for a week or so (Mental, not physical, it should be said), but I knew I was asking for it, and I got it.

Immediate Art – Art of a Child’s World

For children’s artists, an art that speaks to our particular audience – children and youth – is another kind of art. Our art is not just of the present, but towards the future – towards who these people are in the process of becoming. For artists who work with children, we have the added burden of considering how much a child can process. There’s a strong argument for not opening up a can of worms if you’re not willing to stay around and get the worms back in the can, or maybe make a new can. Most children’s artists are acutely aware of the particular age they are talking to. I would not sing Cheryl Wheeler’s song “If It Were Up to Me” to an elementary school audience, nor to a family audience, although I might in a coffeehouse setting of adults. I think there’s a general feeling among children’s artists that we address the issues of violence in terms appropriate to a child’s world – presenting a song or story, book or movie , that names a problem and shows children options for action in their own lives. This might be as specific as being aware never to touch a gun, or knowing how to address someone who is very angry, or as general as a desire that we all live in a safer world. Presenting a piece that names the horror of gun violence and asking for action on the audience’s part can be challenging even for adults audiences – for children, it can promote a fear with no outlet. For an artist who wants to present art that imagines a better world, I believe the action a piece of art suggests should be in the realm of the possible for the audience. This should be an ongoing question for children’s artists – How do we appropriately speak of violence to our audience? How do we empower the people we are trying to reach.

Art of the Common Ground

There’s one more kind of art to consider. As I said, the prophetic, polemical piece divides. In a performance where the artist isn’t there to specifically represent that polemical point of view, there’s an open question about what the artist’s role is. And truthfully, many artists perform to unite, or at least to suggest a commonality. One of art’s greatest powers is to make people feel, and the ability to engender a feeling in an audience – a compassion – is one way to turn people’s minds around. In touching on common feelings, we find common ground. In this vein, a piece of art that finds away to acknowledge what a person with an opposing view feels has more chance of breaking down some walls than one that doesn’t recognize the validity of those feelings. But both kinds have their purpose. Still the question for us would be How do we create pieces of art that help people reconsider? How does art change people’s hearts?

I believe that all three of these kinds of arts are necessary – the polemical/prophetic, the one that speaks to audiences of their immediate experiences, and the one that bridges differences. Any artist may create any of them, and sometimes manage to combine them – it’s all the work of an artist that cares about the world.

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