author – activist – faculty – mom
In these dire times, many creative people are wondering what their role is in turning things around at the political level. I think everyone’s role is to be an activist, but I do think there’s a special role for artists.
Artists, particularly working artists, are masters at pushing past discouragement. Here, I’m mostly talking about working class artists. For artists who are independently wealthy, there’s no economic battle to make room for the art. They have the luxury to just spend time creating. But for those of us who have to make a living, we have to figure out how to make our art pay, or how to carve out time to create, when many of our lives as workers barely leave time to adequately recover from work. We’ve been told that we can’t have lives as artists, that we’re asking too much. And beyond that, we’ve been met furrowed brows and frowns. Who wants to hear what we have to say? Why should we believe we have any potential?
Potential, like talent, of course, is one of the biggest lies about being an artist. Art doesn’t require talent or potential, it requires skill. Skill is acquired by practice. We may have certain gifts, but gifts are optional. Art is about doing the work.
As artists, we have the job of imagining something new, something that has never existed. It takes boldness to believe that our visions are important enough that anyone wants to see or hear them. And then we have to work to develop the craft to get that image, that vision, that idea, that story out of our head and use words or images, or movement or music to communicate it to other people.
And when we fell in love with that process of creativity, we decided we wanted to do this with our lives. For many of us, this news wasn’t greeted with claps and cheers. We’ve been told that we would starve, that we’ve let the family down, that we weren’t pulling our weight. We’ve been called selfish for putting this above taking care of partners and parents and children. We’ve been told that we need to pick a practical career, even if it makes us feel like we’re dying inside. And we said fuck that. We won’t accept that. And so we went out into the world and started making our art.
And the world didn’t give a fuck. And we had teachers and peers who sneered at our creations and mentors who exploited us, and we got much more negative feedback than positive, and we still kept going. We had people steal our ideas. We got sexually harassed in graduate school. Our immigrant visual art was patronized. Our testimonies of racism were questioned. Our female-centered images were belittled. Our poor and working class stories didn’t seem to measure up. Our queer art was met with awkward silence.
Occasionally, we had mentors and teachers tell us: this has potential. But then, when we worked to fulfill our potential, we had galleries reject us and agents who turned us down, and mostly people didn’t even get back to us. We weren’t’ even important enough to them to email us two words. No, thanks. But we kept going. I personally sent out over 100 query letters to get my agent. She wasn’t even one of the 102 I queried. Another agent passed my manuscript UPTOWN THIEF on to her. Agents told me, “this is good, but I can’t sell it,” or “I don’t see where it’ll fit into the marketplace.” One said, it’s just not for me, but these things are “a matter of taste.” A matter of taste meaning, this is too colored, too female, too hood, too political. This is not going to kill in the suburban ladies book group demographic. But I kept going. Because I knew that these gatekeepers were wrong. That the world did want my book. That there was an empty spot in the world in the exact shape of my book. Because that’s what working and working class artists do. We keep going and we invent the things that the world needs that it might not even know that it needs.
And that’s exactly what artists have to offer right now, if the Electoral College doesn’t wake up and smell the fascism, and contest this election that overrode the popular vote and the will of the people, then we need artists to lead in the face of discouragement and despair to get everyone to keep going. We need to keep fighting for the country we want and need. We are experts at holding onto a dream when there is no evidence that it’s going to come true. And we’re experts on hoarding shreds of hope over long periods of time. We have grit. We have stamina. We fall and get back up. We keep going.
When we put work out into the world, we get feedback and we have to sift through it.
“No one is going to buy this book.” That’s a lie.
“This book has potential, but it needs work.” That’s probably true.
And we don’t wait four years to do it, we get back to work. And we revision and we revise and we revise and then we send our work out into the world again.
Our movements for social justice need revision. This election has given us some important feedback. There’s way too much in-fighting among democrats, progressives, and leftists. Our sexism, racism, and classism is killing our ability to be unified. An entrenched, white old guard of gatekeepers has been dominating the Democratic Party, and that needs to change. We need a younger, browner, more grassroots party that really supports female leadership. And we, as artists, need to model what it looks like to stay engaged in the process. We have the numbers to constitute a New American Majority, and we need to stand behind that bold and progressive vision and direction.
Yes, people, if Trump is inaugurated (I am not yet willing to say “when”) we will hit that well of despair that our vision for the world will never happen. But just like we know that the world wanted our books and our paintings and our dances and our songs and our installations and our sculptures, we know that the world didn’t want Trump. Not just the world–this country didn’t even want Trump. He couldn’t even get a majority of the popular vote in a low-turnout election. We know that the world wants justice and solidarity and living wages and reproductive freedom and peace and an end to colonization and exploitation and xenophobia and sexism and homophobia and islamophobia and an end to racism and classism and we will not quit. We will never quit. We will keep going until we get that vision in our heads out into the world and creatively reshape the world to fulfill its potential.