Art vs. Revolution
Last week I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast Commonplace, featuring a conversation between host Rachel Zucker and poet and activist Juliana Spahr (if you don’t already listen to Commonplace, I highly recommend it). I always find Zucker’s conversations interesting and enlightening, but this one has stuck with me a bit more than usual because a large part of the conversation had to do with something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about for the past two years: the limitations of art as a means of protest or activism.
Almost exactly two years ago, just before the inauguration, I found myself distraught, feeling helpless and looking around for anything to do. I’d always had strong opinions about, well, everything, but I’d never been motivated to do more than just talk about the ills of the world. Talk and, I suppose, vote every other year. But suddenly I was faced with the reality of a Trump presidency and all I could think was that my life of complacency had in some way contributed to the horror we were now in. That just talking or writing or making photographs about injustice wasn’t enough. I ended up joining a grassroots organization and becoming something I never thought I’d be, something I’d even explicitly disdained in my youth: an activist.
Two years in, I’m still an activist. I’m also still an artist. (I’m also tired, all the time.) Often times I feel a tension between these two roles—any time spent on one is time not spent on the other, and I nearly always feel that loss. I want to do both, and more besides, but it’s just not physically possible. And so I wonder, over and over again, what can my contribution be? What ought it be? What must it be?
In an interview in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut talked about this very question. His response—delivered with all the sardonic wit that we expect from Vonnegut—has since become famous: “When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.”
Is he right about that? Well, yes and no—at least, that’s my opinion. If I’ve learned anything in the past two years it is that there is no substitute for actual organizing. Less than an hour before I sat down to write this, the Senate passed a bill to re-open the government after the President finally backed down. The only reason that this happened is because of two years of consistent progressive activism, two years of marches and phone banks and visits to Congressional offices and voter registration and community outreach and knocking doors and getting out the vote. It happened because people got up and made it happen, flipping the House of Representatives and holding their elected officials accountable and never letting up the pressure. And there is simply no way that art, alone, could have accomplished that.
But it’s also not true that art has no place or function in activism. To paraphrase something that I once heard activist Mariame Kaba say, if politics is about achieving what’s possible, then activism is about changing the limits of what’s possible. Or, if you prefer, “rebellions are built on hope.” Art and literature are engines for building empathy, giving us opportunities to understand and feel an emotional connection to people whose life experiences are different from our own. It’s that connection that allows us to expand the boundaries of what we imagine for the world. It’s that understanding that tells us what to fight for and why.
This is why I reject the notion that we have to make a choice between art and revolution. We need both. We need art and literature and creativity to teach us, to stoke our passion, and to keep us going when we get discouraged. But once we’re motivated, we have to follow it up with action to actually achieve the changes we want to see in the world.
Now, some people are going to have the time and resources and ability to do more than one thing, and to the extent that you’re able to be both an artist and an activist, that’s great. But it’s also important to recognize that movements are bigger than any one person, that no one should or even can do everything themselves, that we all have a role to play. Not everyone can grab a bullhorn and lead a rally. Not everyone can write a poem that makes the reader understand our shared humanity. None of us should be complacent, but all of us have specific strengths and skills we can offer. I believe we can change the world, each of us, and all of us together.
Dear Evan Hansen
Note: I will be discussing the plot of the 2016 musical Dear Evan Hansen in this post. If that sort of spoiler might bother you then it might be best to skip this one.
For Christmas this year J got me tickets to see Dear Evan Hansen. After hearing people talk about that show for close to two years I finally started listening to the soundtrack a few months ago, and it's been in pretty heavy rotation ever since. Last weekend we drove up the coast to Costa Mesa, the closest city to us on the show's national tour. It was a lovely evening—we drove by some familiar places from our Orange County days, ate a delicious meal, and the show itself was amazing. The music, the staging, the performances—it was all just great.
Still, as much as I have loved and still love that show and particularly its music, I couldn't help but have some misgivings about the story. If you're not familiar with the musical, at the beginning of the show we meet Evan Hansen, a socially awkward and isolated teen who desperately wishes he could have some friends. The title refers to an assignment he receives from his therapist, to write himself motivational letters. After a classmate, Connor Murphy, kills himself, Connor's parents find one of Evan's letters in Connor's pocket, mistake it for a suicide note, and assume that Evan and Connor must have been friends. Caught up in the moment, Evan doesn't deny this, and by perpetuating that misunderstanding finds himself gaining popularity at school, a girlfriend in Connor's sister Zoe, and a second family in Connor's parents. This goes on until eventually the lie is revealed, and it all falls apart.
This kind of story of a mistaken identity and false relationship is one that's been done many times in theater and film. The 1995 Sandra Bullock movie While You Were Sleeping comes to mind, for example. In fact, I think a lot of older movies and plays have turned on this sort of plot device, and it's usually played for laughs and everything winds up in a perfectly happy ending—when Peter Gallagher comes out of his coma in While You Were Sleeping there is some climactic drama when Sandra Bullock's lies are revealed but in the end everyone forgives her and she winds up marrying Bill Pullman and everything is great. Dear Evan Hansen definitely treats Evan's lies with more gravity—Connor's parents appear to ultimately forgive him, but he's still left relatively alone by the end of the show, though having grown and learned from his experience.
The question I keep coming back to is whether the show means to say that Evan's growth and learning make all of his lies and the harm he causes worthwhile. J thinks not, because of how the show ends on a bit of a bittersweet note with Evan alone. I just don't know, though. Certainly we get much more about Evan's sorrow and regret over having lied (as expressed in the climactic song "Words Fail") than we do about how the Murphys process that revelation and come to a place of forgiveness (which occurs off stage, between scenes). And in the last scene, when Evan tells Zoe that her parents didn't have to keep his lies a secret, she tells him that this experience saved them.
On the drive home, J and I talked about this. She felt that perhaps I was being overly critical, not having enough empathy or consideration for a character that was clearly suffering from depression and anxiety, and who as young person wouldn't have had the life experience or tools to properly deal with the situation he found himself in. Which is a fair point, and certainly I think that if the show ended by punishing Evan like some Greek tragedy, that would have been profoundly unsatisfying. The thing is, Evan's not a real person, he's a character who was written. And I just can't get past wondering why he was written this way, why the show's creators wanted to tell this story in this way.
Then again, it's really difficult for me to get away from myself and my own biases and insecurities and fears when judging a work of art. I don't think anyone really can, nor do I even think it's necessarily something one should strive for. Really, the thing that's most likely driving how I feel about this show is how much I can relate to Evan. When I was in high school, I was lonely and felt isolated, and out of that isolation I acted in ways that sometimes hurt other people. Not to the same degree as here, but hurts are real even when they're not catastrophic. Seeing a story in which a sad, lonely boy is, if not redeemed then at least extended compassion, is something that immediately feels validating and comforting to me. And that's always a response that makes me start asking questions. I did it quite recently with Sarah Rees Brennan's YA fantasy novel In Other Lands. And now I'm doing it here.
As humans we are so strongly wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That in itself isn't a bad thing, it's basic to survival. But it can become a problem when an unwillingness to endure discomfort blinds you to the ways in which you might be harming other people. Ideally, we'd all be able to do both, to be able to both be gentle and compassionate towards ourselves while also admitting and correcting our faults. There's such a strong pull toward excusing oneself, though, and away from an honest assessment of one's flaws, that it can be very difficult to find that balance. And as easy as it is to snuggle deep into the blanket of denial, it's just as easy to overcorrect and swing into self-loathing. I'm not really sure where I am on that continuum right now.
There's so much I love about Dear Evan Hansen. The music is just phenomenal, soaring and lifting as it does. And hearing the message that no one deserves to be forgotten, that we will all be found, that in truth we aren't as alone as we feel—it feels good. I just always come back to this question: at what cost does this good feeling come? Maybe I am being too critical of this show, and I'd love to hear about it if I am. But I think that this is a good question to ask.
Word for 2019
Last January I chose the word Grace as my word for the year. I had spent much of the previous year pushing myself to do more, more, more—the world was in crisis and I had worn myself out trying to fight, to resist, to endure. I knew that what I had been doing was not sustainable, that I wasn't built for rage or conflict, that I needed more flex and more give in my life and my approach and my interactions with other people. I needed to find more acceptance, of the world and of others and of myself.
I returned to that word, Grace, over and over again throughout the year. And really, as a guiding principle it was a successful one. I think that I spent more of my time being present and aware, being kind and generous—really, being the kind of person that I want to be. Keeping that word close to me is something that I want to continue doing for the rest of my life.
Still, in thinking about where I was at the beginning of 2018, I can't help but wonder how much of my choice to orient myself toward acceptance and even a certain passivity was driven by fear. By the fear that no matter how hard I struggled, it would not be enough to effect the change that I felt I needed. That perhaps obscurity, invisibility, was what I'd end up with, and indeed what I deserved.
This past fall at a photography festival, I was talking with a friend after we'd both finished having our portfolios reviewed. She asked me how I thought they went, and I said something like "Oh, they went well, but then they usually go well. People were very complimentary about the work, but nothing's going to happen with it. And that's OK. Maybe I don't even want anything to happen with it." It's not the first time I've said something like that. For a lot of my life, I've struggled with a fear of success. The thing is, I know just how lucky I've been, how much of what we think of traditionally as "success" is mostly a matter of having an advantage that you didn't earn. Growing up, neither I nor most of my friends had a lot, and the fact that I now live a fairly comfortable life has at times struck me as something shameful, not because I haven't worked hard but because I know how little hard work matters without opportunity. My wife calls it survivor's guilt, and perhaps she's not far off there.
Looking back at where I was a year ago, I think about how much time I've spent trying to convince myself to want less. I might dress it up in language to make it seem profound—noting, for example, that Buddhism teaches that desire is the root of suffering. Or I might chalk it up to something culture, perhaps the Japanese idea of the tall nail being hammered down. But if I'm being honest, it has a lot more to do with that shame than with anything else.
Looking forward to 2019, I'm realizing that I have desires and ambitions, and that I want to engage with them instead of trying to ignore or disavow them. It is and always will be important to me to be of service to others, to maintain a sense of humility and gratitude and grace. And I never want my success to come at anyone else's expense, nor to make anyone else smaller by my taking up more space in the room. But in my best moments I believe that it's possible for me to help make the room bigger so that all of us can breathe more easily, that if I had a bigger platform I could use it to do more for other people than what I'm able to do now, and that as long as I know what my values are and remember to live by them, there's nothing that need be shameful about success. The word I'm choosing for 2019 is a reminder of all of that.
My word for 2019 is Growth.