Why I’m Okay with Art as Protest
[On Utilizing All Functions of Art in Society]
Two definitions that you will find helpful as you read and interpret this post . . .
Art: the traditional creative forms of self expression — visual art(painting, sculpture, photography, etc.), music, theater(acting), writing, and public address Protest: any expression meant to critique or support a governmental authority, social trend, or related action/policy/institution
(This is how I have chosen to define “art” and “protest” for the purposes of this article. These definitions are in no way fixed or comprehensive)
It was the final week of Christmas vacation. Like the nerd I am, I was firmly resolved that I would watch this year’s Golden Globe Awards (finally, an interesting program on one of the three channels we receive!). All day long, while wiping tables at Chick-fil-a, I dreamed about curling up on the couch with an afghan and a bowl of ice cream and watching my favorite actors and actresses laugh around graciously laid tables and accept awards in couture suits and gowns. After an eternal work shift, I sped home to shower, eat dinner, and claim a spot in front of the tv. It seems I had developed a mild obsession. My poor family felt the weight of this obsession when they informed me I was to chauffeur my brother to basketball practice a half hour before the program began. It all worked itself out, however. I sped Andrew to school and raced home to the sofa in time to catch the end of Jimmy Fallon’s opening monologue.
I watched in thorough satisfaction as creative visionaries paraded back and forth across my screen throughout the evening, saturated in the warmth and elegance of Hollywood glamour. As the show drew to a close, Meryl Streep was paid tribute for an outstanding career and welcomed to the stage to receive a lifetime achievement award. Her acceptance speech, though humble and gracious, grew unexpectedly political. Streep criticized President Donald Trump for a televised campaign event in which he appeared to mock a disabled reporter. She concluded by calling for the artistic community to fight for the voiceless because artists have “the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”
I was captivated by the eloquence and command of her address. I could not stop replaying her words in my mind. I knew that people would debate the validity and appropriateness of her remarks, but there was something stirring about an actress using her voice to hold the president-elect accountable. I fell asleep wondering what to think about Streep and her political appeal.
The next morning, I was met with no shortage of opinions on Ms. Streep’s discourse. Many applauded her initiative in confronting perceived injustice. Others argued that her words were mistimed and that she should remain silent on political issues. Some revived the televised footage in question, trying to vindicate Donald Trump’s intentions and prove Streep’s argument faulty. I explored the social media response, read several online articles, and continually replayed the controversial video clip. Like many people, I don’t believe the video confirms Trump’s attempt to ridicule a disabled man. I think his intentions remain unclear. While I certainly didn’t begrudge Ms. Streep her opinion, I began to feel that she and other celebrity artists should limit their political statements to private conversations and civic contexts. After all, is an award show really the place to be addressing social issues?
Meryl Streep is hardly the first artist to make such a political statement. Many are familiar with Beyoncé’s controversial track “Formation” off her wildly popular Lemonade album. When she released the music video for her song, she was accused of supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement and promoting anti-law enforcement sentiment. Shortly after the song release, Beyoncé performed “Formation” during the 2016 Super Bowl half time show, and many claimed she channeled the militancy of the Black Panthers. However, Beyoncé’s performance was only a small component of a larger spectacle. For the finale, she joined Coldplay and Bruno Mars on the main stage for an energetic rendition of Coldplay’s “Up&Up.” They sang,
“We’re gonna get it, get it together
I know, we’re gonna get it, get it together and float
We’re gonna get it, get it together and go
Up, and up, and up”
“Believe in love.” (a change from the original words which read “Don’t ever give up”)
The collaboration of these dis-similar artists, the acknowledgement of racial conflict, and the inclusive lyrics of the final song were carefully calculated to send a strong message of unity, diversity, and equality in the midst of social and political strife.
Throughout election season and the early days of the new administration, Saturday Night Live has entertained its viewers with overtly political sketches intended to criticize President Trump and his policies. The comedians of SNL have used overdrawn characters and laughable scenarios to express concern over educational policy, refugee and immigration response, minority rights, and many other controversial issues. Arguably, these sketches have transformed the program into an extended social commentary that lacks the finesse and character of the original. Yet, viewers continue to applaud their favorite Saturday night entertainers, and the cast members of the show seem to have found a new groove.
At this year’s Grammy Awards (yes, another awards show I watched), Katy Perry gave a political performance of her new single “Chained to the Rhythm.” She wore a “Persist” band on her sleeve and performed on a rotating set that appeared to be a physical representation of the self-deconstructing American dream. Perry was joined by Skip Marley, and the duo concluded the performance by raising their arms in front of a massive projection of the Constitution. After the final line of the song, Perry yelled, “No hate!”
Artists using their work to express social and political beliefs is certainly not a new trend. History is full of creative people who have raised their voices to speak out against governmental corruption and societal conflict. Individuals like Jonathan Swift (A Modest Proposal, 1729), Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago, 1973) are just a few examples. Artists have always utilized their crafts to address injustice and enable change. However, despite the historical precedent for using art as protest and the effectiveness of doing so, there seems to be a stigma surrounding any modern artist who takes a stand for his beliefs. What has changed? Why are modern artists dismissed when they make political statements?
I believe art has always served a few basic functions in society. Almost every civilization throughout history, whether healthy or not, has developed it’s own unique forms of art. The presence of art in every place during all eras demonstrates its enormous significance to humanity. In a recent TED Talk, Cam, a professional songwriter and musician, discussed the powerful and beneficial effects of music on the human consciousness, saying, “Something that exists in all these cultures and across all people — something that universal — must help humans survive.” Indeed, art does play a crucial role in every society, without which, people would suffer.
Art’s fundamental purpose is to give people a voice. After all, it is one of the most powerful and accessible forms of expression and communication. Art often portrays our feelings and ideas in a more accurate and thorough manner than our speech does. It is also incredibly accessible — almost anyone can learn to express themselves creatively. For this reason, even individuals who have difficulty communicating have found their voices through art. For many professional artists, their work becomes their identity because of art’s ability to embody its creator. This is why we identify musicians by their songs, painters by their canvases, and writers by their words — art is in some way inhabited by the artist.
However, we do not simply find our own voices through art. Art also enables us to give a voice to those who are never heard — it allows us to dignify and humanize the forgotten. This is why many artists make the impoverished, the marginalized, and the oppressed the subjects of their work. There are millions of people in the world who are unable to share their stories, defend their rights, or plead for help. However, artists utilize their crafts to ensure that the suffering are heard and seen. In a 2009 TED Talk (which I highly encourage you to watch), Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie said, “Stories [art] can . . . be used to empower and to humanize” and to “repair . . . broken dignity.” This is why Meryl Streep said artists have a responsibility.
Another closely related function of art is to build empathy and unify cultures. Art is highly relational — it forges connections between the subject, the artist, and the consumer. It allows us to experience, in a limited sense, the lives of others. Art reminds us that we are each different and must work to understand each other while also reminding us that we are the same and must learn to appreciate one another.
In addition to its relational nature, art is also highly experiential. This is why it provides catharsis. Art helps us to release our emotional energy and experience rest as we interact with it. The artist pours his emotions into his work, and the consumer pours his emotions out in response. This emotional transaction is the way in which we evaluate art. The artist looks for signs that his audience is experiencing emotional release — if they are, he has created something good. The audience hopes to experience emotional release — if they do, they know the artist is talented. This emotional flow is restorative, therapeutic — its why we turn to art.
The final role of art — and the one with which this article is primarily concerned — is creating accountability and confronting injustice. In a healthy society, artists are able to use their voices to express social/political convictions and hold their government accountable for any corruption. As I have detailed above, there is great historical precedent for artists using their creativity to address issues and promote progress. Artists have been present during many of the significant political and social developments throughout history fighting for justice and positive change. We owe much of the progress we have made toward the determined involvement of these creative individuals. When these artistic forces are eliminated, societies suffer and progress slows.
As an artist myself, I am troubled that so many people are antagonistic to artists expressing a political opinion. Artists are catalysts for a better future, and societies that value government accountability and social justice should appreciate the voices of their artistic communities. As creative individuals who are constantly looking forward, artists should be seen as allies in creating a healthier society rather than ignorant thinkers with an agenda. Furthermore, as citizens, artists have a right to self-expression and should not be disqualified from speaking their mind simply because they have influence but lack a political background. Artists should be welcomed into political discussions and heard with respect like any other individual. Self-expression is a human liberty and should not be denied anyone based upon their experience, their beliefs, or their vocation.
I believe that each of the four functions of art I have outlined above are important and must exist in balance in every society. These functions are inter-related and work together to make art the powerful and beneficial force that it is. Eliminating any one of these functions cripples the entire mechanism. When we disallow art as protest, the effectiveness of art in society diminishes. Artists suffer because they are not allowed to express their feelings and beliefs. Subjects suffer because their stories are not told. Society suffers because individuals cannot experience the suffering of others through creative media. It is essential that art be allowed to perform each of its functions if culture is to receive its maximum benefit.
I spent a good deal of time conflicted about Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech. As a politically-minded individual who does not agree with all of Ms. Streep’s beliefs, I succumbed to the idea that she should limit her political comments. However, after re-examining the situation as an artist, I realized that every function of art is essential and that I want the freedom to express my political opinion through my work. I intend to use my creative voice to address injustice and effect change in the world, and I don’t want that freedom taken away. I realized that Ms. Streep was simply exercising a freedom that we both value very much. I applaud her for using her voice to challenge injustice just as I applaud the other artists I have mentioned, whether I agree with their opinions or not.
This much I do agree with: empathy is a privilege and a responsibility. And I claim this privilege and responsibility for myself, for Meryl Streep, and for all artists willing to use their voices for justice.