Should Artists Get Political?

What is true for scientists is also true for artists.


Imagine what President Obama might be thinking about the election and Donald Trump. Imagine the thoughts he can’t express.

Now write a song about it.

That’s what This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to do. And the resulting song is a phenomenal piece. The quality of the lyrics, the hook, the melody, the staggered percussion, everything. You can hear it for yourself here.

But whenever I experience works of art infused with political messages, I think of the pressure this puts on both the artists and on the people who experience their art. I think of the way governing powers in the past have made art another tool for orchestrating their propaganda. I think of the consequences for the artists who didn’t share the beliefs of those powers. I think of Marc Chagall painting in hiding, out of Lenin’s shadow. I think of the thousands of artworks by Chagall, Picasso, Van Gogh, Emil Nolde, and others that were burned by the Nazis. Call me dramatic. But governing powers have a history of harnessing art to idealistic ends, and there’s much more at stake than political change.

Which raises the question: should artists get political with their art? Emily Carde suggests that musicians have a unique healing role in society. Should they also have a political one?

Here’s what Jehnny Beth, lead singer of London punk band Savages, has to say:

Social and political change starts with personal change. I don’t need a politician to prove that my work has meaning, I believe my work stands much stronger on its own and is already part of a movement. Every song written today contains all the songs that have been written before. Newton didn’t discover gravity all by himself. He let all the research and knowledge of his predecessors lead him to his conclusion. What is true for scientists is also true for artists. We are not alone, we are part of a community already.

Then she provides wonderful perspective:

Humanity was born yesterday. Even your great great great great grand-parent were here just an hour ago. Like the rotation of the Earth on its own axis, change is too small, too incremental, for our eyes to see. Everyone who tells you otherwise is a charlatan—and is probably trying to sell you something. Isn’t that a good enough cause to be living by? All we have is here, now and each other.

When creating a song, a book, a painting what are artists really doing? To paraphrase novelist Kurt Voneghut: for one moment, artists are creating “the world exactly as it should be.” That is the real power of the artists, and I believe in this power.

The opening track of their first album, “Shut Up,” begins with a sample of dialogue from a film. An older woman (who we learn to be sixty-five years old) keeps asking another female character, “How old are you?” The younger character is obstinate and refuses to answer. The song is an urgent call to silence yourself and listen: you’re new here, and you have much to learn, so pay attention.

The point is that political movements are forever juvenile, forever offering repackaged solutions that have been tried before. They rebrand old and often bad ideas. But Jehnny Beth offers perspective: humanity is young compared to the universe. The United States is eons younger. Our lives are like grass. So should we invest all hope in political campaigns and presidential candidates?

Seth Godin rightly points out that the Grand Canyon wasn’t made by an earthquake, but by erosion. Years of water nibbling at stone. This is how change happens. First it begins with us as individuals. We change our habits, our lives. We become what we claim to believe. And little by little we influence others to do the same. Becoming is promiscuous. It’s contagious. When we become who we’re meant to be, we become a source of actual change. We start streams.  

Years later, the streams become canyons.

Politicians may promise hope and change, but neither of those things are in their job description or their capacity. Political movements will always arouse us with their momentum and their passion, but art demands immersion. It demands patience and humility. It requires us to earn wisdom from the masters, to listen before we can speak. And it reminds us that cultures and behaviors do not change with the wave of a magic hand. There are no immediate changes in art—only years of dedication and quiet, hidden exertion.

Beware quick fixes. Be suspicious of political change.

But if you’re an artist, get to work. Make excellent, provocative art. Touch the souls and imaginations of other people.

Let your work be your movement.


Photo of Sara Bareilles by Justin Higuchi, labeled for re-use.

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