Mac and Cheese. Peas and Carrots. Bread and Butter. Art and Activism. Some things just go together, don’t they?
Why is that? Have you ever noticed that wherever you see an activist movement at its strongest, its most full-throated glory, you also see crazy, gorgeous art? What’s the connection?
And I can’t help but wonder: can we build that connection with intention? What if our activism could lift up the artists in our community? What if art could help us to get our movements to that strongest expression of themselves even faster?
We’re all the same tribe
Did you know that there’s a huge amount of overlap between the artistic and activist communities? Seconded only by the overlap between activists and clergy! I’m not kidding! Many artists have a political statement within their works. That’s the most visible. But there are lots of activists who dabble quietly in the arts in their free time too. There’s also quite a few clergy members who once were activists, and many activists who studied at theological school. Why? The universal.
We are all those people in society who feel the pain in this world a little too deeply, and to not go insane we must act. I love Glennon Doyle’s metaphor of the canary in the coal mine. We are the people who feel the toxicity in the world a little more strongly than others. We are the first to raise the alarm that something’s wrong.
“Maybe we canaries are here not only to be saved,
but to save you right back.” – Glennon Doyle
Artists, activist, clergy. We are all the same tribe. We’re all trying to understand the universal, trying to make sense of this often painful world. Some of us pick up a paintbrush or a turntable, some pick up a protest sign, some pick up the Bible. Same roots.
Similar Drives: Both Art and Activism seek truth
I hang out with a lot of artists. Most of them will tell you that they’re aiming to find something both singular and universal. Now, which universal they’re trying to find varies. Perhaps they’re trying to capture the breathlessness of a single moment. That thing that makes your soul vibrate in response. Or maybe they’re purifying an emotion or idea down to its abstract representation.
It doesn’t matter the artistic medium: graphic arts, writing, dance, or music. Artists are trying to describe something about their human experience and communicate it with their audience. All are seeking to find the universal in all of us.
So if artists are looking to make others’ souls vibrate, activists are just big ol’ seismographs. Activists spend a lot of their time listening to the hard human truths that many would rather not hear. “Injustice” is a big concept, but at its heart it is one person’s story, one person’s truth. Activists embrace that human experience and then go out and shake the world by its shoulders saying: you must listen.
All this is why activists usually LOVE art. We look at a piece of art–a creation trying to communicate a human story–and our whole being which is geared to listen to stories goes: YES, they got it.
Similar Language: Speaking in emotion
Obviously, artists communicate with emotions. Even if an artist is inspired by statistics, they will use their medium to force you to feel something about those numbers, right? A simple image will be repeated and replicated hundreds of times, until you are drowning in the immensity. A song will beat at you with its rage or sadness. Have you ever been swept away by a dance and mesmerized as you wonder how a single movement could communicate so much?
Now, there’s lots of people today who think that the best way to talk politics is to be devoid of emotion. That politics is and should all about endless numbers and statistics. Try to discuss a problem with them and they’ll rattle off lists of numbers to you, thinking that’s going to convince you.
It’s so ridiculous. All those people thinking they’re gonna sway people if they just lay on even more facts or post just one more fantastic link. THEN they’ll convince everyone.
I’m gonna let you in on a time-tested community organizing secret: you start with the emotion. You start with the emotional story of Joe the Mechanic, Martha in Housekeeping, or Will and Sally and their two kids. You use the emotion in their story to communicate the urgency of your cause first, and then statistics to echo and reinforce second. It is emotion that drives action. Think of your favorite political speeches from history. They got their fists all wrapped up in your heart-strings, didn’t they? Effective activists connect with people first through emotion.
Similar Sustenance: Thriving on connection
Obviously activists need connection. We’re the extroverts of the canary tribe. That’s our whole job–getting people to come together around a problem to fix it. We are happiest when people are reaching out to each other. The very definition of our daily job success is when we’ve managed to get one more person to join the movement, no longer to feel like they’re alone and abandoned.
But artists–even the most solitary–are driven by connection as well! Why else would they create? Artists are driven by a pressure to describe the world, their experience and put it out there. They are seeking to connect with an audience who understands their perspective on the world, perhaps who is moved or helped by their take on the world. Think about how you compliment an artist. You say, “This piece you did really speaks to me,” don’t you? Right. They connected with you. That’s the highest compliment.
Intersection: We all need a pressure-valve
We should think of art and activism as two ends of a spectrum of solutions to a universal human problem. Activism is the macro solution–big picture, moving heaven and earth to solve society’s problems. Art is the micro solution–reaching down into ourselves on the most individual level to find the answers.
No person is an island. Likewise no one can expend energy outwards indefinitely. Balance is achieved through movement back and forth between these two poles.
We all need a pressure-valve. Activists need to occasionally reach down inside themselves to recharge. We call it “self-care,” but in truth it’s something bigger. Artists need to reach outwards to fight off the feelings of depression and anxiety that too much isolation can bring. I’ve found that the solution is in switching back and forth between the two.
Mix and Match for something Truly Wonderful
From what I’ve seen in 20 years of organizing, art and activism work best when together.
Can you have art without activism? Sure. There is a place for something that is simply beautiful in and of itself. But I’d argue that it lacks life. Without the connection to the universal, that statement of what unites us, it’s just a song or just a pretty picture on a wall. That doesn’t mean that art has to be a full-blown manifesto each time. But, for example, pictures of dewdrops on a leaf should make us wonder at the magic of nature, and perhaps even inspire us to protect our Mother Earth a little more. See how that works?
And can you have activism without art? Sure. It happens all the time, unfortunately. There’s WAY too much politics without art, without the emotion. There isn’t enough reaching down and back to what moves us all, to what connects us all as human beings.
This is why when you mix the two, and you get an energetic blend that can carry you for miles. You have the artists speaking the truths, and the activists putting it into action. The activists give voice to the artists who needed to be heard, who in turn create more art, and onwards and upwards we all go together.
This cycle works between people, and also within individuals. You create art which helps you understand yourself and the world. This inspires you to put it into action to change the world for the better. After a period of struggle, you pause to recharge and create more art and touch the universal again. Onwards and upwards.
Calling all Activist-Artists
So I challenge you–combine some art and activism!
Do you use art (defined here as any creative endeavor) within your self care practice? Do you write? Paint? Dance? Make music?
Or do you deliberately seek out ways to inject art into your life? Where are the poetry slams, the art galleries, the dance lessons being offered? When was the last time you sought out new music? Or found a new author that you loved?
Or there ways that art can be used more within your campaigns? Are there artists talking about the same issues of your campaign, and could you all work together?
In the comments, tell me what YOU do to bring art into your life. If that’s hard or scary for you (it is for some), tell me why!
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