What is the artist’s responsibility, if any, to the state of the world? As we progress in life, sometimes, but not always, we begin to look at our lives and ask ourselves, what is my contribution? Some of us think that we can’t make a significant input unless we do something that a least gets mentioned in the New York Times, nominated for a major award or some other self-affirming accolade. Artistic offerings whether large or small, recognized or not, are always present in our world.
Those of us who are ambitious musicians, strive to have our music heard, to have our feelings understood by the masses. Perhaps this is the only type of addition that matters for us as artists. I can only speak from the musician’s point of view, but perhaps it may be true for the other art forms as well.
Some of us sit comfortably in our world of art for art’s sake, art without an agenda, believing strongly of its authenticity. But is art with an agenda, not authentic art? Why is it that some artists are considered political while other artists are not? Is this an intentional thing on their part or merely a by-product of stirrings in the subconscious mind that arises without awareness, in the form of a song, poem, painting….?
Of this I am certain; when music springs organically from a source, the ‘what is strongly felt within is a mirror to what is felt without’, producing a power that can change the world for good or for bad. Artist as peace activist?
I’ve been a musician all of my life and I’ve been an active peace pusher for 20 years. As a musician, my focus has been to create the music, get the gigs, have fun playing music with wonderful musicians, and of course, let’s not forget getting paid cause the bills ‘gotta’ get paid. The idea that my music was affecting people in ways other than listening and having a good time, and that I could be one of those ‘political’ musicians, never occurred to me. Besides, I felt I was already making a statement just by being an African American female jazz musician who grew up in deep South, in the ’60s. I lived those stories of riding on the back of the bus and drinking from ‘coloreds only’ fountains. Yes, I have some unbelievable stories to tell, which I will save for another time. My attitude finally settled on, “enough, I just want to play some music”. It wasn’t until a dear friend of mine, who was a big community activist for over 60 years, started asking me to help her with mobilizing our Brooklyn neighborhood around the peace and social justice movement. Through working with local grassroots organizers, handing out flyers, creating educational forums, attending rallies and marches, I began to seriously think about my connection, first to my neighborhood, and eventually to the entire world. I was also introduced to Nichiren Buddhism and the SGI around the same time. The SGI which stands for Soka Gakkai International with its mission of education, culture and world peace seemed to be in absolute alignment with my new found personal calling. So I jumped in, eventually became an active member of Brooklyn For Peace and began my exploration as an activist.
The years have passed and working day in and day out to mobilize and motivate people to take action has been a frustrating, yet rewarding adventure. For me it was not enough to simply inform people of things, that in my opinion, seemed out of balance; we needed to give them something to do about it. To help them feel empowered and effective. People ask me why do you care so much about something that you can’t really change? Why involve yourself in a peace movement that obviously has not, nor probably never will, have a ‘win’ to speak of? You’re a musician, just play music!
My answer: I accept full responsibility for the state of the entire world. I am completely and totally connected to everything around me. Yeah, we know, the spiritual Buddhist thing, right? Yeah, that…, but think about this. The fact that you are reading this blog entry, and that I have typed it on my computer is the result of someone creating the technology for me to do so. The chair I’m sitting in, the desk that my laptop rests on, the house that I’m in, the list can go on and on and these are just the material elements. So when I say that I am connected, that my contribution or lack thereof is part of the cause and is definitely the effect, it hails more than just some intangible ‘spiritual Buddhist thing’. It can definitely be seen on the material plane. Just as I rely on everyone else in the world to help me with my existence, in turn, I think it is safe to say that I aid everyone else in their existence. Interdependence or in my Buddhist practice, dependent origination.
So whether I acknowledge it or not, act upon it or not, I have a responsibility to the world and since I am an artist (that’s what I like to call myself), my work and expression (my story) are the tools that I use to provide service to the world, to create the greatest value. Effective art tells a story and people always like a good, compelling story. If I am an active storyteller, then my art becomes my activism.
Maybe all the songs I sing and write aren’t those of specific social commentary such as End War Now, Save the Planet, No Nukes, etc, they are commentaries nevertheless, and their value represents what I value in life. The tribal, familial elements of a story draws us in and guides us to seeing our similarities, identify with all the emotions of the moment, whether it be pain, joy, sadness, loneliness, happiness, etc. We all want to be heard, even if it is sometimes through the captured visuals, words and music of another.
Traveling around the world, I have witnessed first hand the power of music to bring people together. Music permeates and integrates the life of the teller with the listener’s and carries them both into the heart of silence where you find Peace.
There are some great articles on art and activism, here are a few here, but I invite you to browse the web and seek out more information for yourselves.
Art, Artists and Activism– 1930s to Today
By Art Hazelwood
Art Activism [this site contains numerous links for exploration]