The Power Of Artists In Difficult Times

The beating heart of music, art, and literature knows that artists are morally obligated to expose human and societal truths, or else the death of our humanity is certain.

In 2006, my college boyfriend bought us tickets to my first concert: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young at a rural Pennsylvania stop on the “Freedom of Speech” tour. We were looking forward to their cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” the soft, twangy reassurance of “Teach Your Children,” and all the rest of our favorite songs. CSNY played on well into the night, covering two full sets, but we were entirely unprepared for their encore.

Against a montage of news clips and a yellow “Support the Troops” ribbon flapping in the wind, the band launched into a solo track from Neil Young’s latest album Living With War called “Let’s Impeach the President”—five minutes of holding Bush accountable for the Iraq War, the invasive surveillance of American citizens, and the shameful state of post-Katrina New Orleans. My boyfriend and I were rattled by the sudden burst of commentary and subsequent outrage of fans, many of whom filed out of the venue trailing obscenities.

Was this the place to take a stand? I realized later that CSNY’s politically-charged encore was no more shocking than their older songs that ignited counterculture activism during the ‘60s and ‘70s. From their condemnation of the Kent State massacre in “Ohio” to earlier incarnation Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” on the 1966 Sunset Strip riots, the band comes with an extensive history of protest anthems.

On a CNN Newsroom segment last month, singer Harry Belafonte revered artists as “America’s moral compass,” and, borrowing a line from longtime friend Paul Robeson, deemed them “the gatekeepers of truth.” The interview coincided with Atlanta’s Many Rivers Festival, an idea born out of Belafonte’s relationship with Prince and the artists’ belief that music should “instruct and inspire.” “I’m almost 90 years old,” Belafonte told CNN, “and I think America sits in [the] most critical space I’ve ever known our country to be in.”

The truth that Belafonte references is not the quantitative, unequivocal cushion that comforts our STEM-consumed culture. The beating heart of music, art, and literature knows that artists are morally obligated to expose human and societal truths, or else the death of our humanity is certain.

Though college campuses have long been energized by social activism, University of California at Los Angeles professor John McCumber recently noticed a moral knowledge gap among students. While they may understand the definitions of oppressive ideologies like anti-Semitism and racism, students often view such ideologies as “merely a personal preference” rather than innately evil. Humanity “doesn’t just exist; it has to be created, over and over again,” McCumber asserts. “If our violent history shows anything, it is that we are not born with an innate sympathy for, or understanding of, all humankind; and without those, ‘humanity’ is just a word.”

Musicians in particular have long been at the forefront of both relaying why something is evil and providing an emotional outlet for those affected by evil. Forty years after Buffalo Springfield asked us to stop, hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down, bandmates Stephen Stills and Neil Young asked us to consider possible parallels between the Iraq War and Vietnam. They urged us to empathize with Americans who lost everything to Hurricane Katrina and felt profoundly neglected in its wake.

This brand of truth-telling can offset conventional wisdom and make those who find the status quo advantageous deeply uncomfortable—and it’s meant to. Stepping outside of our own convictions and experiences requires a tremendous amount of humility. Maybe we don’t have all the answers. Maybe the way it’s always been is not OK, or at least not OK for those in communities seemingly worlds apart from ours.

Artists like Rage Against the Machine and Bruce Springsteen brought police brutality into mainstream music through deconstructions of good and evil (Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses) and violent imagery (I got my boots caked in this mud / we’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood). Dion’s classic “Abraham, Martin, and John” questioned the loss of three good men; Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” was a voice for silenced survivors of sexual assault. Most recently, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first of its kind awarded to a musician—because of his revolutionary “poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

As Fred Rogers’ mother once advised him to “look for the helpers” whenever bad news broke, regarding artists as “helpers” who lead us to human truths can guide us through all kinds of pain. Our collective, public mourning over a national tragedy gives artists material to sculpt into something that heals en masse, but our personal, often private matters also need attention. “We write to expose the unexposed,” Anne Lamott notes in her writing guide, Bird By Bird. “We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to.”

Three years ago, for example, I finally felt removed enough from the toxic climate of my parents’ divorce to write in an honest and centered way about my experience. The essay received more comments than any of mine to date, most from other adult children of divorce who could identify. One reader told me that it was “as if someone had looked inside my mind, and wrote down exactly what I have been feeling.” “I’m not sure what to do with the feelings,” she said, “but I’m glad that I am still able to feel.” I felt that this breech of isolation was especially important given how few resources there are on the topic, and how drastically the experiences of adult children of divorce differ from those of younger children.

For the most part, this narrative and the testimony I poured into it have lain buried because no one else close to me shared the “truth” of being an adult child of divorce. This all changed last month, miles away from land, when I began chatting with a woman aboard our cruise ship. Being about the same age and both former English majors, we hit it off immediately. It wasn’t until later in the conversation that I discovered, like me, that her parents had divorced once she graduated from college. I sent her my article after we parted ways. “I’ve never read anything more true and relevant,” she responded. “I still can’t believe I met someone who has been there as well.”

Toni Morrison reminds us that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” Albert Camus reasons that “the purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” By framing artists as “gatekeepers of truth,” we acknowledge these two functions simultaneously. Artists free us (at least momentarily) from seemingly hopeless circumstances, and in doing so, build a stronger civilization. Human truths may very well save the world, but radical change comes piece by piece.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

Other Links: