We live in a 21st Century world where terror can come out of the sky in an airplane or via microbe in the water system. The free press has become the market-driven, ratings-hungry press, and can no longer be relied upon for the kind of information that citizens require for making the collective decisions that democracy expects of them. Spin has replaced facts, and attitude counts for more than trustworthiness. Walter Cronkite is nolonger the most trusted man in America; he is now a hoary old liberal whose relevance has been undercut because he stubbornly refuses to shout over younger voices in whom ambition has overtaken objectivity. We have a president who proudly trumpets his lack of curiosity, and a set of elected representatives who have consistently betrayed the people they represent in the name of special interests. Yet, the arts budgets shrink while defense spending triples. It is acceptable to criticize an artist for violating local cultural mores while receiving public funding, but the same critics remain silent when billions are committed to dysfunctional weapons systems whose sole job is to repel attacks that the great majority of space scientists doubt could ever be carried out.
It takes courage to be an artist in these times. One of the celebrated functions of art is to compel consumers to re-imagine what they see, what they hear, what they consider as received wisdom. Art transcends the immediate, and confers immortality on the culture that allows it. The cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere remind visitors of great cathedrals; both fill people with an awe that transcends everyday life. Robert Hughes once called this effect of art "the shock of the new." Yet today we use shock and awe to describe the saturation-bombing of Baghdad. Is the Secretary of Defense really a performance artist that has been given the greatest stage imaginable to practice his art? Or is he a poseur, a highly-skilled professional manipulator of the truth who cloaks his real intentions with fireworks and bombast?
Recently, I visited the Puffin Gallery in Manhattan's Soho district to view an exhibition of children's art. The children were Iraqi school kids, and the depictions were their perceptions of the bombing of Baghdad. Some saw the cross as enveloping the crescent. Others saw tanks and rockets with American flags on them, crushing and maiming children and their teachers. Some envisioned a Paradise where American and Iraqi flags flew side by side, where brown-skinned kids played with their paler counterparts. These kids remind us of what art once was, and always should aspire to be. The phrase "artistic license" means something. It means that we grant artists the freedom to range far and wide in their expressions of reality, because there is a use value in thinking outside the conventional container, or box. Art retains the essence of free speech, and should not be subject to censorship based on any absolutist value system.Let me briefly define art. It does not mean just visual depictions of inner or outer reality, nor is it confined to that which can be perceived by the eyes or the ears. Most would agree that a poet or novelist is an artist, but I will go further. A political columnist who manages to frame a complex issue in terms that allow others to see it afresh is also an artist. A stand-up comic who deflates the self-importance of those in power, any kind of power, is an artist. A homeless person who lives on a heating grate and flashes a sign "Will work for kindness" is an artist. A mother who raises a literate and moral kid into adulthood despite the pernicious competing influences surrounding that kid is an artist. A scientist who devises a new theory of the universe and rigorously constrains that theory through seemingly incomprehensible high mathematics is an artist. An aboriginal elder who sees songlines instead of colonial boundaries is an artist. A mountain climber who ascends the ten highest peaks in the world without the use of supplemental oxygen is an artist.
Many people cut off the artistic impulses they feel. They would rather blend in than rock the boat. They would rather evade accountability by flying under the radar. They have developed convoluted reasons why issues such as these are irrelevant to their lives. They offer up homilies and bromides to justify their non-participation in the culture that surrounds them. They join self-protective groups whose unstated mission is to insulate them from public responsibility. They turn their artistic selves inward and use the creativity that everyone possesses to create elaborate self-delusions; they still may be artists, but are unwilling to examine their deepest motives and fears, or they remain unconscious of how these demons operate.
At a moment in time when our democracy has veered off its two-centuries-old announced course, when America's citizens are asked by the world's largest producer of weapons of mass destruction to support the squelching of other countries who try emulate us, the role of art is more critical than ever. In an America where censorship once again has been imposed upon us through the manipulation of fear, the ability to express outrage and question authority is a necessary freedom. It is worth fighting for, because the notion of a democratic America is worth dying for.
Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document: