Artists Who Want to Change the World Should Innovate, Not Just Resist

A rally organized by PEN America at the Brooklyn Museum. The organization will take part in The Federation's January 20 Art Action Day. Courtesy of The Federation.

Last year, in the weeks leading up to January 20th, artists and cultural institutions were urged to protest Inauguration Day with a strike: to observe a day without art by shutting down and shutting up. We think this idea, however well-intentioned, was misguided and counterproductive at best, anti-art and self-defeating at worst. Shushing art makers overlooks art’s fundamental function as a means to communicate indispensable truths. Asking creators to lower their voices ignores how their output provides critical reflections on our politics, helps inspire societal transformation, and offers a site of catharsis. Stifling art expression is never a good idea, but it’s a particularly disastrous suggestion in our darkest periods. Those are the moments we are most in need of art’s illuminating light.

This year, January 20th will mark the first Art Action Day, a celebration launched by a coalition of artists, cultural organizations and allies known as The Federation. The group was founded by artist Laurie Anderson and producers Laura Michalchyshyn and Tanya Selvaratnam in direct response to the proposed immigration bans and in opposition to the slashing of arts funding. The events that will make up the day—sing-a-longs, disruptions, dances, and joyful noises—will be hosted by groups large and small in locales around the country. This year, the message is to do anything but go silent. The goal is to be louder and more visible than ever.  

Courtesy of The Federation.

Courtesy of The Federation.

Obviously, artists have a long history of standing at the forefront of movements for social justice. By challenging long-held ideas and provoking new ones, by changing perspectives and inspiring understanding, art can change society in ways almost nothing else can. Art and action don’t exist in siloed spaces, but are in fact dependent on each other. Music, writing, and beautiful visual works open up room for political change, and that’s true of both high and low art. Consider what Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” did to shine a light on the horrors of lynching; how folk music of the 1960s, and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” helped make civil rights a worldwide topic; how much Will & Grace impacted what people thought of marriage equality. That’s not to take away from the hard-fought progress won by activists in the streets, putting their bodies on the line, but art can also be a powerful galvanizing force. It’s a long-standing historical truth that autocratic regimes go after the arts first, a truth that stretches from Stalinist Russia to an America whose current President vowed to end public arts funding before even being sworn in. No doubt every regressive regime has understood art’s power.

In these kinds of historic moments, when we are facing and coping with oppressive and repressive forces, there’s a reflexive tendency to define ourselves and our existence through opposition. We use terms like resist and resistance, or pushback. There’s agency in those words—the lexicon of struggle is a tool in and of itself—but it’s also important to remember that our existence isn’t merely confirmed by the negation of something else. That’s why art is so vital in these moments. It helps us confirm that our being is not rooted just in refutation, but in innovation. It reifies our existence through creation, imagination, and connection. That’s literally what the act of artmaking is.

In many ways, we are all creatives. All people have the capacity for creative expression. Art is part of everyone’s life regardless of socioeconomic status, geography, and cultural or religious background; art spans cultural gaps by building bridges and closing borders. Art Action Day calls on each of us to be our creative selves. To quote from art critic Emily Ray: This year, January 20th will be a moment “for us to flood not only the streets but the classrooms, the concert halls, the column inches and the creative spaces many have fought so hard to build and defend.”

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