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.