The case for art as an instrument of activism is best made by its opponents. In 213 B.C., the first emperor of the Qin dynasty had all contrary texts burned. His was to be the longest dynastic system we know of. Qin Shi Huang was just another despot recognizing a basic truth: language structures our thought as much as the other way around.
Three years later, he reportedly had many scholars buried alive, as if to emphasize the point. But he was far from alone. The number of regimes that have rounded up intellectuals, killed or imprisoned artists and writers, and erased or re-written history, stands in stark contrast to the image of arts and intelligentsia in pluralist societies. They are often portrayed as lazy dilettantes intellectually masturbating in Ivory towers, or at least, an affectation of the disaffected. If there is any truth to this image, if the arts have become blunted, the academics rendered self referential and useless, it’s only because our society has forgetting the use we have for these things. With the McCarthy and Civil Rights eras not so far behind us, and countless social battles still being waged and yet to be won, it is hard to believe we can be so myopic.
It may not be useful to distinguish between artists with a political agenda, and those who have been silenced or threatened simply for speaking their mind. In either case, a list of names will always fall short of the reality. Ai Weiwei, Tony Morrison, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, add a thousand more, and a thousand thousand more unknown voices beyond that.
The artist goes inward, and identify those liminal, unspoken terrains that often contradict the public discourse. The underlying motive, to the extent that art isn’t polemic or cheap politics, remains speaking to an inner truth. James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “The Creative Process,” speaks to this directly.
The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states — extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge. It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic… And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.
The purpose of this column is to highlight known and unknown dissident voices, to remind artists what we’re here for, after all, and to remind everyone else why these voices are important.