Toni Morrison — Toni Morrison! — was once on the phone admitting how upset and depressed and unable to work she was when her friend interrupted her:
“No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”
In his book, Artists in Times of War, the historian Howard Zinn tried to outline the relationship between the artist and society. He emphasized the word “transcendent”: the artist transcends “the immediate,” “the here and now,” and “the madness of the world.”
The artist thinks, acts, performs music, and writes outside the framework the framework that society has created. The artist may do no more than give us beauty, laughter, passion, surprise, and drama. I don’t mean to minimize these activities by saying the artist can do no more than this. The artist needn’t apologize, because by doing this, the artist is telling us what the world should be like, even if it isn’t that way now. The artist is taking us away from the moments of horror that we experience everyday—some days more than others—by showing us what is possible.
The artist provides a much-needed, much-valuable service to us, as trivial as the work might sometimes feel when the artist is doing it. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” says Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
But, Zinn says, that is not all the artist does:
[T]he artist can and should do more. In addition to creating works of art, the artist is also a citizen and a human being.
And yet, when the artist attempts to do her duty as a citizen, she often hears: “I follow you for your art, not your politics.”
(Whenever I hear this I immediately think of George Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” And Margaret Atwood: “You’re supposed to do one thing. If you do more than that, people get confused.”)
There’s a specific feeling from some fans that artists and creative people should stick to their business. “I didn’t sign up for this.” “Leave the politics to politicians.” “What do you know, anyways, you’re just a singer.” (Even though, as in the case of health care, politics has everything to do with whether the artist will be able to keep making the work their fan loves.)
Zinn says we can’t be deterred by such sentiments. “It takes only a bit of knowledge of history to realize how dangerous it is to think that the people who run the country know what they’re doing.” This country is our business, and it’s our business as citizens to try to make it as good as we can.
Here’s Jacob Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
“Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
These are dispiriting times, but it’s our our duty as artists and citizens to keep using our gifts and to keep using our voices to make the world a better place.
So, please: Keep making your art. Keep speaking the truth. We need your efforts, no matter how small and how trivial they may seem to you.
There’s no time for despair, but if you really need a day off, take it. Find the beauty and peace you need to keep going. The work will still be here when you return.