The Importance of Being Artist

By Ricardo Levins Morales
Excerpt of a full article originally published in Reimaging America by New Society Publishers, 1990

Every night, whatever the weather, I step outside and look at the sky.  It helps me feel connected to a larger world beyond my city streets -- to my people, scattered across a thousand lands, working, struggling, breathing under the light of this sky.  Sometimes the stars seem to shine back to me with the gaze of ancient faces.  People who crisscrossed these lands in times long past.  People to whose survival we owe our own.  The silent night sky reflected their questions and ideas about the world as tonight it does mine.  This is my link of intimacy with them.  Perhaps another 15,000 years in the future someone else will share these quiet moments and it will be my gaze they imagine in the stars.

     I see myself as a representative of that future.  As an organizer I’ve learned that without a future it’s difficult to organize the present.  If the sun probably won’t rise tomorrow we may as well throw our beer cans on the lawn, our chemicals in the sea, our topsoil to the wind.  It there’s no tomorrow then living for the pleasures of the moment, getting it while we can, is a reasonable thing to do.
     In my time and in my adopted, second homeland, the United States, hopelessness reaches epidemic proportions.  It is the toxic by-product of racial, sexual, class and every other oppression.  It weakens our ability to act, to see beyond the “rules of the game” to other ways of being.
     In a society governed by lies, cynicism becomes the street corner philosophy.  Hope and respect are scorned and hungered for.  To be optimistic, in a broad, social sense, is to be regarded as some kind of nut.  At the same time, to express hope in a persistent and credible way it to be sought after like a water merchant in the desert.
     The fear (worse yet, the resignation!) about nuclear holocaust is one of today’s most widespread and paralyzing expressions of hopelessness.  It hangs before our daily lives like a misty curtain, dimming the bright colors of the world.  It is the ultimate message of disempowerment: “ In the face of this you are nothing.”
     Artists are as infected as anyone else and their art can become a reflection of their people’s nightmares. Much of the art that tries to grapple with the dangers of nuclear weapons does little to challenge the disempowerment.  Antinuclear art is usually a desolate wall of grief and fear, inviting viewers or listeners to leave their comfortable life of distraction for one of despair.  Some people continue creating scenes of destruction year after year in an apparent hope that someone will come along to reassure them that it just ain’t so.
     My impression is that for a brief moment twenty years ago, the mushroom cloud, doomsday art, played a positive role.  At a time when the reality of the arms race was hidden from the public mind, these images helped to break the silence.  It was a conversation starter.  Since then they have tended to reinforce the passivity they were meant to challenge.
     When faced with problems that seem bigger than ourselves, we sometimes wait around hoping that sooner or later a grown-up will come along to set things right.  Our supposed grown-ups aren’t always so helpful.  Their experts blandly assure us that we can run along and play, everything’s under control.  Our experts are mesmerized by the deadly scenarios of destruction with which they try to frighten us into action.  Your presence, reading this, is a defiance of both scripts.  So we must be our own grown-ups and tap our own sources of hope.  As artists we must find the resources to work through our own fears if we’re to help our people move through the dangers.
     Every inhalation is an act of love.  Medical people say that when a person loses hope they stop breathing, they die.  In every living human there remains an ember of self-love.  It’s the hidden story behind every headline.  An ember that when kindled becomes the driving force of history. 
     Missing that fact means missing the whole story.  Sometimes even in our moments of generosity we miss it.  Antiwar art of our day often depicts Third World people as mere victims:  tortured, beaten down, cheated of life. European and U.S. cartoons against the war in Vietnam fit this pattern, (Vietnamese art did not).  This artwork is a form of protest against injustice and as such is praiseworthy.  Without the bond of love, however, the acknowledgement of dignity, it remains an act of pity and can never project the power of solidarity.
     Art that disempowers is best kept to oneself.  This is self-censorship at its best.  Being honest with your loved ones does not require saying anything that pops into your head.  You remain aware of whether your words will be hurtful or irresponsible.  Art seen as the dreamlife of a people is a useful metaphor.  But a metaphor is not the same as reality.  This one breaks down because with art we have the tremendous power to choose what we say.  Thus, art becomes conscious dream-telling, responsible creation with the potential to affect the life of our people.

We artists have no special answers unavailable to other people.  What we have is work that’s intricately entangled in our people’s dreams, hope, and self-images.  Like it or not, we are part of society’s process of dreaming, thinking, and speaking to itself, reflecting on our past and finding new ways forward.  Our greatest challenge is to accept that what we do with our work and our lives is exactly as important as we believe our people and their world to be.

Ricardo Levins Morales is an artist/activist...or is it activist/artist? It's impossible to put one before the other or separate them. The work on his website represents artwork which he has created, sometimes on his own and sometimes in relationship with organizations, communities and organizers. He believes that art can contribute to changing people's perceptions, hearts and understandings of what has been, what is and what's possible. He's enough of an organizer to understand that art can't do it alone; people getting together and acting together is the real source of social change. The dignity and possibility in all people is the underlying message of his work.

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