As is often the case, it takes a tragedy to unite people cross the miles to say, “Enough already!” The recent school shootings in Florida are just the most recent event that seems to have reached a boiling point. The roaring tenacity of these brave students from Florida is forcing lawmakers at the state and national level to grow a moral spine to finally do the right thing.
I can’t quite remember a time in my life when I felt equally overwhelming emotions of despair and inspiration. Nature abhors a vacuum, so it is such a delight to see so many amazing movements take root, fueled by the frustration that presidential leadership in the areas of social justice, environmental protection, and women’s and indigenous rights is a national disgrace.
Movements such as Never Again, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Stand With Standing Rock are just a few of the examples of the power of grassroots community efforts to bring about change, and to keep pushing until change happens. During troubling times going back to the Great Depression, our young country has often been lifted up and inspired by artists — poets, writers, musicians, photographers who rose up to challenge the injustices of the day.
We need artists now more than ever to engage the muscle of moral responsibility and use their talent for the greater good.
Artists can use their unique public platforms to educate and inspire others to get involved. Some are incredibly savvy with using social media. Others, including myself, use the old school platforms of lectures and exhibits and story-telling to ignite long-dormant passions of other artists to be bold and support a timely cause.
When I hear some artists say they don’t have the time to get involved, or what good would it do, I admit to a heightened level of intolerance for such thinking. Once I heard an artist complain about societal expectations, being raised to believe that to put energy into anything other than being a dutiful wife and mother would be deemed selfish. Fortunately, I was raised by a ferocious warrior mother who stared down societal norms and deemed excuses unacceptable.
Last fall, I was so pleased to be invited to participate in the “Art As Activism” exhibit opening March 2 at the Columbia Center for the Arts. It is gratifying to be among a group of artists who will address the blending of art and protest to bring about social change. Drawing upon his experience as a Vietnam veteran, counselor, and artist, Michael Stevens will use bullets, sandbags and a rifle in a mobile installation to address the trauma of violence and ponder the possibility that disarmament truly begins in the mind. Elisabeth Stanek will use collages to contemplate human activities in relationship to their impact on land, air, water, weather systems, and environmental processes.
Tula Holmes’ totems reflect a cry in sympathy for the Sioux Tribe’s fight to protect their native lands at Standing Rock. Scott Stephenson will explore the context, significance and meaning of for days in October 1947, the Hollywood Blacklist congressional hearings, that altered American culture and devastated the lives of many.
My “Columbia River — Source To Sea” project (see photo with extended caption on B3) wraps the beauty of a river with a coat of hard truths about tribal rights and the return of salmon to the headwaters. These are but a few of the thought provoking examples of the participants who have stepped up and are speaking out through art.
The current administration’s budget calls for practically eliminating funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. There is no logic here — just an ignorance of the intangible value of art. They justify this by saying it is not a core federal responsibility.
To help lift America out of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Art Project, a division of his Works Progress Administration. FDR actually hired more than 10,000 artists to fan out across America to create sculptures, paintings, and works of art that continue to feed the souls of Americans today.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” was a landmark moment in the creation of the modern environmental movement. Through his imagery and testimony, Ansel Adams forced congressional protection of landscapes. Joan Baez’s songs of protest lead a generation to help bring an end to the Vietnam War. Throughout our young history, artists have consistently shown a light on issues of the day.
For any artist who has longed to get involved, but procrastinated for a myriad of reasons, we need you to put your grown-up pants on and get going! Immersing yourself in an art project that matters can soothe the pain of isolation and feeling of hopelessness that nothing can be done to change things. Your song, poem, essay, lecture, and courage is needed now more than ever.
“Those works of art that have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living truth — they take hold of us and nobody ever, not in ages to come, will appear to refute them.” — Alexander Solzhenistyn
Editor’s note: See page B3 for an exhibition image by Peter Marbach, and details on “Art As Activism”
For a complete list of participating artists and more information on the March 2 opening night, visit columbiaarts.org/raising-voices-art-activism.