Arts & Culture | The Role of Art in Precarious Times

By Venta Rutkauskas –

It was Nina Simone who said, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” This question has come to mind frequently in recent weeks,  for the times demand that we speak out about injustice and stand up for a vision of tolerance, if not compassion and inclusivity. In a summer engulfed by flames, rising bigotry, and ongoing inequalities for Indigenous communities (think missing and murdered women and girls, education, and social service) it is more and more difficult to remain silent.

Canadian singer, Tanya Tagaq. Photo: Levi Manchak[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Challenges against dominant ideals within a society have often emerged from artists. It is through these courageous creators that I search for a way to respond and make meaning of what is happening in the world around. These individuals have taken in the struggle of their times, delved deep into themselves, and devised work pointed at changing the status quo.

The gift of art is this: art has a transformational and alchemical ability to alter an audience, inspire change, and serve as empathy technology. It’s the tool that provides an audience a way in to another perspective. Empathy technology allows us to better understand our own experiences or the artist’s, even a whole culture’s viewpoint. Each artist can open a gateway to a secret world, exposing a love affair with subjects, forms, and ideas the audience may never have considered individually—moments where we are moved, even altered, by an interaction with someone’s creation colour or lived experiences.

Radical ideas can flare and light a fire under a whole nation. Racial tension during the American Civil Rights Movement sparked a deluge of art and activism. For Nina Simone, the time came where it was no longer an option to keep her activism and her music separate. Her famous song, “Mississippi, goddam,” became a civil rights anthem. Written about the death of four young women bombed in a church in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the song was a turning point in Simone’s career. Lyrics demanding equality and calling out injustice vociferously, bluntly, alarmed and angered many in the south. They banned the song in several southern states; records were returned from radio stations, broken in half, never to be played. Some say Simone’s career never recovered from her leap into activism. Yet how could she not respond to such acts of racial violence?

Simone’s compatriot, writer James Baldwin, also tore down the stereotypes of black Americans, while deeply exploring the role and responsibility of the dominant white man in upholding racism and inequality. In an essay titled “The Creative Process,” Baldwin charged artists with a great responsibility to hunt for truths like these, unseen by the mainstream audience. “Go within,” he says, “to unveil and illuminate darkness so that others may also see.” For all of Baldwin’s strong language around race, love is at the core of his message. The creative process serves “to make the world a more humane dwelling place.” He adds, “If we understand ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less.”

The courage to dive in to the shadowy realms of self and society characterizes many of the best-known artist-activists of the current day. Prolific street artist Banksy’s murals and installations grapple with the injustices of poverty, immigration and refugees, and those who wield political power. His subversive images appear in charged locations around the world, including the Israeli West Bank barrier. Always controversial, sometimes beautiful, Banksy’s art provokes thought and dialogue within a mainstream culture of complacency and consumerism.

Few voices are as fierce as Inuk composer and performer Tanya Tagaq’s. Many have described her performances as an exorcism for the Earth, and her fourth studio album, Retribution, makes a direct link between women’s rights and the treatment of the Earth and her resources. Tagaq refuses to mollify her message to make it more approachable; rather, she vibrates with the channeled rage of the victims of violence.

It is impossible not to take notice and awaken to the complexity and healing that must emerge from true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

White artists also have a role to play in furthering the ideas of reconciliation. Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire’s project, Secret Path, tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, the 12-year-old boy who died trying to escape residential school in 1966.Downie’s ability to raise awareness within Canada’s cultural mainstream has brought him gratitude from Indigenous artists and leaders alike. Learn the truth, and then share it.

When art is a practice of self-reflection intensified with social justice issues, craft matures into a powerful tool that engages the audience and provokes dialogue. The convictions and courage of these artists ask that we also look inward and ask: How will I respond?

Venta Rutkauskas is the co-ordinator for the Community Arts Council of Williams Lake (CACWL). She is an advocate and lover of the arts, and has taught drama and written plays for young children. She is also passionate about the healing arts. See www.williamslakecommunityartscouncil.com to learn more about CACWL and local artists.

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