Over the course of his career, the late, great Howard Zinn published a number of papers, books and spoken-word albums, sharing with us his views on the world. Of all his work, one of my favorite releases is Artists in a Time of War. On this 45-minute CD, Howard discussed at length the role of an artist during tumultuous times. And aren’t the times always a bit tumultuous? There always seems to be a war, a famine, a scandal, a crisis, or some sort of controversial court case.
Last week George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin. I wasn’t in the court, and I wasn’t on the jury, but it upsets me that a young kid walking down the sidewalk can just be shot and killed simply because someone else doesn’t like how he looks. For millions of people following the case, the verdict was a devastating blow.
Then there’s Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee turned whistleblower. Any intelligent human knows that the government has the means to spy on all its citizens, and now we’re finally getting some proof that they actually have been. The implications of this become increasingly frightening the more they are discussed.
But what power do we have? What are you or I supposed to do?
It’s easy to become frustrated when thinking about these seemingly larger-than-life problems, and it is sometimes difficult to find a way to feel like we are affecting change. We can go to rallies, protests, and marches to battle the things with which we disagree, sure. We sign petitions, or boycott companies that don’t behave the way we feel they should. (I left Verizon this week for a smaller phone carrier because of the Snowden fiasco.) But as artists, we have not only the ability, but also the responsibility, to do more.
Whether you focus on painting, music, film, or any other genre, you can make your voice heard. As for me, I’m a writer. So here I am, writing. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. I don’t, and I don’t pretend to. I have no idea how to solve the problems of the world.
What We Can Do in Art and War
I have my own set of moral codes, and when I hear about massive events that go against what I believe, I get angry. Sometimes all a person knows is that they are pissed off. So start there. Make art. Because there are a lot of other people out there who are just as upset as you, but don’t know how to express it. The hard-working average citizen is just begging for someone to bring voice to their troubles.
Art, in all its forms, is not only a way for individuals to express themselves, it is also a doorway to a public discussion. A way for people to connect on a larger scale, to find common ground, and to relate to one another. It is also a way to record history as we see it unfolding. The high-ups will always try to write and rewrite history, but they can’t stop us from writing our own novels or songs. They can’t stop us from painting murals or taking photos. Art and war are old bedfellows; art is the best weapon we have to fight the power! So use it!
I’m certainly not telling anyone what to think, or feel, or believe. I’m just telling you to think, to feel, and to believe. In something, in anything! Then share those thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Because without art, we may as well just lay down and die.