As creators of art, do we have a moral obligation to support social movements through our work? Artists–including writers, musicians, and painters–are forced to reconcile the spirit of the times with their desire to create. The Occupy Movement, which began with Occupy Wall Street and has since spread to cities throughout the U.S. and to other countries, recently received a boost from Occupy Writers, an online petition in support of the Occupy Movement that includes over two thousand signatures.
For the second session of Six Degrees Left, our monthly dialogue on topics that matter, we asked six artists–five writers and a musician–to discuss the responsibility artists have to social movements and the Occupy Movement in particular. We’ll share their responses over three consecutive days; part one of the discussion is below.
Thanks to writers Myfanwy Collins, Katrina Gray, Jamie Iredell, Djelloul Marbrook and Marcus Speh, along with musician Bobby Strange, for joining us.
Edward Abbey avowed the moral duty of a writer is to be a “critic of his own country, his own government, his own culture.” How important is the voice of the writer/musician in social movements, generally, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in particular? Is there a moral obligation for creators of art to help articulate the root of grievances driving social movements that goes beyond any particular occupation or protest?
Myfanwy Collins: I appreciate the Edward Abbey quote but feel it needs some context. Take into consideration that he was an active writer in a time before the mainstream use of the Internet. There was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. There were no blogs. No Tumblr. No texting. There was no sense that everyone who has access to a computer, the Internet, a phone, and wifi can have a public voice.
I don’t agree that acting as a critic of government is a “moral obligation.” It’s a choice.
So many more people can now have access to an audience, I would argue that it is not only the writer who has this moral obligation but that of everyone who seeks an audience (not just writers and artists). Social media has changed everything. With that said, I hasten to tell anyone what he or she should or shouldn’t do (unless that person is my kid) and so I don’t agree that acting as a critic of government is a “moral obligation.” It’s a choice.
Djelloul Marbrook: To me it’s [the Edward Abbey quote] a rather grandiose and shallow articulation of a much larger circumstance. The arts inevitably reflect their times and speak to them in ways that are unique to the artist’s voice and style. In this sense, to talk about a moral obligation seems to me an oddly political and limiting way of thinking of the artist’s role in society.
When I listen to a blind saxophone player in Union Square I assume he is speaking to the time and the circumstances of our lives. When I write a poem about missing an old man on a street and mention the war in Iraq in the same breath, I assume I am not making a statement about society lesser than “Howl’s” more overt and concerted statement. It’s just different; it’s my way compared to Allen’s [Allen Ginsberg’s]. If one were to take on Abbey’s challenge literally one could certainly not follow the Sufi path, which is to disengage in order to engage more metaphysical realities. I guess, in short, I find Abbey’s statement uninteresting.
Bobby Strange: I made it down to Zuccotti Park the other day. As a busker myself, I was a little disappointed not seeing anyone playing while I was there—except the drum circle. (Laughs) I guess I’m a romantic. I was expecting a bunch of Pete Seegers singing Arlo Guthrie songs.
I’d like to think people expect our art—and in my particular case, my songs—to be a bridge/connection/reflection between them and another place they would like to go. Most people can’t physically make it to OWS [Occupy Wall Street]. Our writing, if it’s good and/or relevant, it paints a picture and can be that “bridge” that puts people on Wall Street. More importantly though, people should feel our music is expressing (and sharing) the feelings that they have in their hearts as they are living through these very difficult times. There is no bigger compliment to one’s art than having people look to your work as that bridge.
If you want the responsibility to develop the trust it takes for people to choose your writing to look to, then in a way you do have a moral obligation to your readers/listeners, especially if you truly appreciate the trust that they have given you. There are Lennons and Dylans and then there are Barry Manilows, and how you want your work to be thought of or remembered is directly proportionate to what you choose to articulate with your art.
You do have a moral obligation to your readers and listeners, especially if you truly appreciate the trust that they have given you.
Jamie Iredell: Artists don’t have any moral obligation to respond to anything in any way. Inherently, I suppose—in the sense that all things have ideologies—the artist already does respond, reflect, contribute to the discourse, etc., but that can be conscious or not. At least, from a writer’s point of view, “moral” literature was the prerogative of John Gardner and others like him, but to say a writer’s limited to that is, well, not freedom.
But should a writer choose to respond directly to a particular issue, like this Occupy Wall Street thing, then that’s that writer’s choice. But choice doesn’t have anything to do with morals or import. An individual has to decide for himself what’s important and how he may or may not be involved with those things he deems important. So—at least for me—it’s become apparent that we no longer live in a free society, that the concept of constitutional democracy has broken down, and the right to peaceably assemble to address grievances has been obstructed, and publicly discussing this is important. However, should another [writer] I might know choose not to participate, I wouldn’t look down on that writer. In fact, I applaud my writer friends whose attitude about this is, essentially, fuck that; I don’t give a shit about politics enough to be involved, which is, of course, ironically, political.
Marcus Speh: Jamie already mentioned John Gardner, but I feel he dismissed him too easily. I strongly believe with Gardner that a writer of fiction is obliged to write “moral fiction.”
Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game—or so a troll might say—because only a clown with sawdust brains would take our side and eagerly join in. – John Gardner, from On Moral Fiction
When Gardner published On Moral Fiction in the mid-1980s, I was on the road in Germany, speaking out as a freshman student of physics against Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative. It seems to me that the willingness of people to exercise even a minimal measure of civil disobedience was greater then; there was less fear that speaking up might cost you your job or your career. I don’t mean to condescend and I hope you don’t read me that way; I respect people’s reluctance to “stick it to the man” when the man’s as terrifying as he is nowadays.
As students we felt we really had a choice. When people say today “you have a choice,” I often don’t think they believe it. It’s become the mantra of a democracy that’s been gone for a few decades, with Bush throwing the last shovel of soil into an open grave. For one thing, to believe you have a true choice you must have thought deeply about both sides of that choice. The Occupy Wall Street movement signals a return of faith in the power of the people to make different choices. While the signal is strongest in the U.S., it is also heard over here (in Germany): there’s more coverage in the mass media every week. My impression is that in Europe it’s seen as a wake up call and people here are impressed with the courage of the American people.
Katrina Gray: When I’ve witnessed an artist state bold political opinions, it’s been thrilling. I attended a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert soon after the U.S. had occupied Iraq, and it was refreshing to hear them say some thing, because, for them especially, silence would have made it seem like they condoned the war. Silence would have been another distraction, another way to make us forget there was something serious going on. And when I attended a live Dublin radio interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2004, I rooted for his unabashed honesty about our foreign policy. But these are examples of artists going about it honestly and sincerely. When political statements are made by artists with the intent to shock or sell records or become famous, it’s not nearly as powerful.
As others have said here, art usually reflects the times, even in the most benign ways. A literary novel set in 2011, for example, could not take place at the Twin Towers. Some things end up becoming facts rather than political statements, and when this is the case, a message is not forced or filled with meaning; it’s just a message.
Artists shouldn’t really carry such a burden, but I imagine the word “critic” can incorporate subtle voices without overt agendas. When I’m at a national park and I have the urge to pick a flower, I think, “What if everyone who walked by picked a flower?” The place would be bare. I think of art in the same way: if everyone created serious, critical, loaded art, I think I’d be bored senseless, and be turned off to art as a whole. Thank goodness we all have different ideas about this.
Marcus Speh: Thinking deeply about morality the way writers think, namely on the page, is also what helps a writer find his voice. When he’s found this voice, he can suddenly speak in many tongues. He’s got access to a field of motion and emotion, not merely to his own twitching thoughts and feelings; he’s turned into a receptacle, he’s covered with a moist, magical substance that will register even the minutest changes of the culture, the politics, the society around him. Paradoxically, the writer’s voice is (and must be) both intensely personal and public.
Shakespeare may have created the human as we know him, but we’ve got to fill his boots with every line that we write.
This choice, while it’s on the table for every “particular protest” as you say, is also a universal, ongoing deal with the devil that the writer must make if he wishes to produce “serious art” in the specific sense described by Gardner. Perhaps there’s no a priori reason why we carry this gift of writing but if we don’t throw our weight behind life, decency and humanity, we’re nothing but word clowns. Writing does matter morally. Shakespeare may have created the human as we know him, according to Harold Bloom, but we’ve got to fill his boots with every line that we write.
Albert Camus put it more belligerently when he said: “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” We must imagine Camus inhaling deeply through his black Gauloises after writing that in his diary.
Through media exploitation, propaganda, and the tendency for broadcasts to sensationalize hard news, are we at risk of losing sight of the core issues in the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Bobby Strange: A great example of that was [ The New York Post’s November 4] coverage of the fight at the park. Nothing was said about the protest’s goals or progress today. Just the drama of the silly fight. If as artists we can cover the real issues in our own art forms in a mature thoughtful way, I think it has got to be a big improvement. Of course, the mainstream media still will just offer the silly drama. (Laughs)
Katrina Gray: It’s easy to get off track, certainly. There’s always that risk. I’ll start out going to the Huffington Post to read about the protests, and then get sidetracked with Kim Kardashian’s shenanigans. But even though we’re bombarded with advertisements and various chatty news sources and ambushed by celebrity gossip, much of that garbage can be crushed by staying aware of alternative sources of information. It’s easy to turn on the local news; it takes a bit more work and commitment to watch Democracy Now on the Internet. European newspapers make me feel like a spy on my own country, because they cover American stories that somehow stay out of the press here. NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera tell me what I really want to know. It’s much like going to a crowded state university: if you scout out the professors who are passionate, smart, and engaged, you’ll end up with a better education than another student who lets the guidance counselor make all his choices.
Bobby Strange: As the token “righty” here, I have to disagree with you Katrina. NPR, BBC etc. are different, yes, but they too have their bias—notice you didn’t mention Fox [News]—get my point? I think coverage of a hot issue such as the protests will always have a bit of bias inherent in the coverage. I think as long as the source doesn’t claim to be unbiased that is cool, too. We can decide for ourselves. If we listen to all sides.
Marcus Speh: The Internet often gets blamed for impoverishing people’s communication, but in this case it does its best to create communication that otherwise wouldn’t even exist. Relating this to Katrina’s example: the conditions for “scouting” have never been better. As a professor, I rely a lot more on my students to keep me passionate, smart and engaged than, I think, my own professors did—and more often than not the Internet is the conduit of our information exchange.
Jamie Iredell: The only sensible place to get news is PBS and NPR. Oh, and Facebook, definitely Facebook.
Should we rely on the media to help promote the arts and artists?
Marcus Speh: I’m perhaps getting too philosophico-political here but I believe that what we see in the world now around social media is nothing short of a quiet, “terribly slow earthquake” (as Roberto Bolaño says). The ground is shaking while those free mp3 songs are playing…
Now, with the increasing role of information technology,—access to the arts—whether music or books or pictures—is easier. One could see this as conditional for democratization, and I think this is why all artists can more easily relate to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and attach themselves more easily to the process than in the past. At least that’s what I’m seeing and it adds to the impact of the hour.
Djelloul Marbrook: I would say that the social networks in cyberspace are now doing the work of the mainstream media. The Internet has shown us that mainstream media are not to be trusted with defining what is important, with defining the news. In fact, the terminology we’re using belongs to previous centuries. We’re redefining the news here, now, and every time we resort to Facebook, share links and videos.That’s why the Tunisian rebels wrote, Thank you, Facebook on walls. It wasn’t the so-called free press in France that empowered the Francophone Tunisians, it was Facebook.
The United States is not a literate culture. Most Americans are more interested in information gleaned from sound bites, pundits, television, and social networking sites rather than reading something sustained, like a book.
Jamie Iredell: The bigger problem—and this is the bigger problem when it comes to a viable democracy (hence this whole Occupy Wall Street thing)—is that the United States is not a literate culture. Most Americans are more interested in information gleaned from sound bites, pundits, television, social networking sites, etc., rather than reading something sustained, like a book. Reading’s, like, so hard, dude.
Is there a sensible response for artists to articulate so that the Occupy Wall Street movement does not turn into an after-hours street carnival or worse yet, a marauding debacle?
Jamie Iredell: The sensible response for artists is to keep doing what they’re doing and don’t think about politics unless that’s part of your thing. Politics don’t really come into my writing—they do, but not that much—and I wouldn’t force it into my writing for the sake of a movement. I do, however, talk a lot about current events in the classroom.
Djelloul Marbrook: I have to say I dislike the language of this question. Street carnival? Marauding debacle? Sounds like David Cameron coming home from a foreign vacation and finding Tottenham on fire.
We don’t know how these protests are going to evolve, but we do know the police are the rioters. We’ve seen that, so why use such pejorative language to describe what hasn’t happened yet? I think we’re witnessing the sensible response. Whether all of us like it or not is another matter. But a recent poll showed that more than 50 percent of Americans believe the protesters are expressing their sentiment.
Marcus Speh: In Germany, we could do with more “after-hours street carnivals”—for the past sixty years this country has been serious to the point of humorlessness. It’s paid off in many respects but people need fun, too. I think the partying aspect is a great point of attraction of Occupy Wall Street even if you’re a party pooper like me; I can think of no better reason to celebrate than getting together to get things moving and shaking. Carnival has always been an opportunity to show the truth protected by masks (that’s the spirit of carnival in the region of Germany I come from).
Art in all its forms feeds on life and energy, and Occupy Wall Street is life and energy.
Djelloul Marbrook: I’m not worried about artists articulating anything. They will whether we ask them or not. Poets will write about the protests, graffiti artists will paint their expressions, musicians will sing about it. Because that’s what creative people do.
There will be a great deal of art from the Occupy Movement. I’ve already seen [it] on the walls and in online journals. Artists are by their nature in the vanguard. They are society’s antennae.
Marcus Speh: I’m also not worried about the response of artists. Art in all its forms feeds on life and energy, and Occupy Wall Street is life and energy. Many people seem to feel that things have gone wrong in a way that needs correction now, not only after the next election. This means they begin to think about more than their own lives and bank accounts and that’s the beginning of change. To come back to something I said earlier: art drives change, it doesn’t just sit back, let it happen and then turn it into something artistic (though this happens, too). Viewed from that end, I’m as excited about the coming changes in the world of art, music, literature as about the coming social changes.
Day two of our three-day discussion on the Occupy Movement examines the corporatization of the arts and music industries and the lasting impact of protest songs.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Six Degrees Left is a monthly conversation that pulls the plug on the respirator of partisan consensus and delivers oxygen through heated exchange. Six Degrees Left dismantles the walls of literary elitism through open and frank dialogue among leading writers, critics, and thinkers on topics that matter. Six Degrees Left needs your help in keeping our fingers on the pulse and beat of everyday culture. Leave a comment on this page or send in your questions or topic suggestions to laceyd [at] atticusbooks [dot] net.
Myfanwy Collins is the author of Echolocation (Engine Books, March 2012) and a collection of short fiction, I Am Holding Your Hand (PANK Little Books, August 2012). Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Potomac Review, PANK, and Quick Fiction, among others. She lives on Boston’s North Shore with her husband and child. You can follow her on Twitter @myfanwycollins.
Katrina Gray is a writer specializing in flash fiction and has been published in Blip, The Northville Review and Metazen, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She lives in Nashville with her husband, the writer John Minichillo, and her son, and can be found on Twitter @Katrina_Gray.
Jamie Iredell is the author of Prose. Poems. a Novel. (Orange Alert Press), and The Book of Freaks (Future Tense Books), as well as three chapbooks: Before I Moved to Nevada (Publishing Genius Press), When I Moved to Nevada (The Greying Ghost Press), and Atlanta (Paper Hero Press). His poems, stories, interviews, and essays have appeared in, among other places, in The Chattahoochee Review, GSU Review, The Literary Review, Elysian Fields Quarterly, elimae, 3:AM, and PANK. As an editor, he co-founded New South, is the fiction editor of Atticus Review, and designs books for C&R Press.
Djelloul Marbrook, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is the author of the poetry collection Far From Algiers (2007) and a recent novel Artemisia’s Wolf. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Solstics, The American Poetry Review, and Istanbul Literary Review. He lives in mid-Hudson Valley and Manhattan with his wife, Marilyn.
Marcus Speh is a writer, ex-particle physicist, professor, executive coach, father, former fencer & paratrooper. His fiction has been published in > kill author, Mad Hatters Review, elimae, Metazen, Atticus Review and elsewhere. He serves as maitre d’ of Kaffe in Katmandu & can be found on Twitter @marcus_speh. He lives in Berlin, Germany.
Bobby Strange is a singer songwriter from Asbury Park, New Jersey. “On some nights he can be seen sharing the stage with the likes of Bruce Springsteen in front of two or three thousand people….on other nights he can be seen in some little coffee house on Cookman Avenue in front of two or three people…. He sounds the same either way….” – Asbury Press, 2010