Art in America's Graveyard
Writing in my journal on a dimly lit plane, I come to an odd realization - it’s been years since I’ve been let myself write flowery. I look out of my window at the stars above me, and realize that it’s been so long since I’ve written about them.
I re-read what I’ve written tonight: angst-filled, sharp, cut-and-dry loneliness - the state of Things. Nothing about clouds, or the feel of the sun, or the nighttime. Articulate, sure. But analytical.
This disappoints me. Not because I think hackneyed, dramatic rhetoric is at all useful, but because apparently I’ve decided that all writing must be useful. This pressure particularly set in about a month ago with the world-wide realization that our country really is as doomed as we feared. Suddenly, surrounded by rampant bigotry, hatred, and straight-up nazism, I felt there was no use to my writing unless it could directly put a stop to all of this chaos.
In the wake of something so terrifying and ominous to so many people, I faced an impossible artistic block: How dare I create anything that wouldn’t save the world?
The thought has haunted me since. How dare we, as artists, not make statements and inspire movements? Mustn’t we be the noble hosts of radically political thoughts? The creators of socially poignant pieces? This anxiety lies dormant within almost all who claim themselves a creator. In times such as these, it resurfaces, reminding us of our grave responsibility to the world around us.
I envy those beautifully prolific writers who write about the State Of Things. I’m so fortunate to be alive when I can consume these great works, and even personally know some magnificent political writers, even if I don’t see myself that way. Which is surprising, considering my two greatest passions are art and politics.
But regardless of labels like “revolutionary” or even just “political” art, I think the two are always linked. No one can help it; even the least political art is political and the most robotic of politics are still an art. Making art just to make art is political. Making art for free is political. Making art as a marginalized person, making art that elaborates on your personal experience, sharing your art with others - it’s all political, in a way. But this political gray area doesn’t always feel “effective” enough.
When I create, it often skirts this gray area - it politicizes on human feeling and my own personal human experience, but rarely actually dives into real political critique.
And I’m nervous. I keep thinking about the likelihood that nothing I ever do will hold the same weight as that created by artists I admire. Can I change the world by doing what I love? Can I move my society forward with poems about stars?
To answer that, I must think a little farther back.
When I was twelve years old, I thought I was the most troubled, unreachable artist there was. I used to pop the screen out of my window and sit against the frame, dangling one leg out of my second story bedroom. It was an uncomfortable position but one I loved to write in, mostly because it made me feel angsty and interesting. In reality I was probably writing about crushes and vans high-tops, so, not quite the prolific prodigy I thought I was at the time.
Nowadays I feel quite similar to my twelve year old self. I feel her with me, always, but repressed by the sense of responsibility I’ve strapped on over the years.
This self-awareness that forces me to recognize my position as an artist, seems to correspond to the creative breadth I allow myself.
For example, I think I write more flowery when I’m in love versus when I’m not. Yet this same lack of self-awareness that gives more room for creation also leads to embarrassing facebook messages at 2am. So it’s a compromise.
We make fools of ourselves when in love, but we also produce incredible albums and anthologies and plays. We’re foolish to completely ignore our reality when we create, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe the anxiety that surrounds this awareness has gotten in the way of creating honestly.
I believe there is a balance. You can know when your words are flowery and write them anyways. They’re your words and it’s your pen and you can do with the both of them however you see fit.
It’s easy to be afraid, not of what your words might do, but what they might not do. As we wade through all of this rhetoric of “now is the time to fight” and “our jobs are more important than ever”, that thought of not moving the tides is absolutely paralyzing.
But now I’m writing because I god damned feel like writing. And if any artist out there has been struggling with something similar, I suggest you let go of self-awareness for one beautiful gleaming moment, in the company of just you and your canvas, and forget the weight of the world. Lose awareness. Make art for the reason you made it when you were twelve. For me, it was to connect with others, to understand the world, and to sort out the things that were going on within me and without me in a tangible way. It’s different for everyone. But whatever it is, no matter how little it’s going to do for anyone else, let it happen. Let it pour out of you without a purpose beyond itself. Let it be.
I don’t suggest you abandon your responsibility to recognize your privilege, acknowledge your weight, and remain empathetic, but not everything you put out there has to be some declaration of The Way Things Are. Maybe I’m the only one, but I find myself craving triviality and stupid jokes and beautiful distractions in times like these. Escapism is absolutely vital for our mental health when surrounded by such horrifying circumstances.
So, in answer to a previous question, do our flowery poems have a place in these chaotic times, I’ll tell you this-
You have a responsibility to the world, but you also have a responsibility to yourself - to live fully and decadently in spite of a culture that growingly hates your decadence. Dare to be inefficient with your work in a time where efficiency is so anxiously demanded. Let yourself breathe, as long as you aren’t taking up anyone else’s air. But that night sky above your bedroom window - that air is all yours. And the stars are yours to write about.