Great art is a vision of the world as it is, contrasted with a vision of what the world might become. Art gives hope, reminds us of our better selves, inspires us. Even the brilliantly creative speech by Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream,” perfectly contrasts this nation as it is (racist, unfair, divided, standing proud in its rich history of intolerance) against a beautiful, 3-dimension imagined future King aspires to, one that is all about equal opportunity and inclusion, living up to our own national ideals as espoused in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
King’s speech is art because it sits in the now-widening gap between what we are and what we aspire to be. Art reminds us that we can be more, we can do more, we can transcend our own petty desires (I need to be rich, famous, beautiful, etc.) and cognitive limitations. Toni Morrison's epic novel "Beloved" would be a perfect antidote for anyone thinking America has ever been great for more than a privileged few.
The late, great comedian George Carlin was an artist too, and he agreed with King about the “reality” of the American Dream. “It’s a Dream,” quipped Carlin, “because you have to be asleep to actually believe it.” Sardonic, yes, but Carlin and King were two artists inhabiting that same gap between our bleak realities and our brilliant aspirations. Art reminds us of that gap and where we are within it.
If we don’t have hope or memory, we can easily lose sight of our deepest values in the tumult of the political moment. Each artist expresses a vision of the world that also encompasses their own values, how they believe the world should be. If you have no vision and values, you’re a zombie who has surrendered human agency and lost your soul (a status I refer to as “Sean Spicerdom”).
Since You Have Values, You're Political
You may be quiet and shy; you may be conflict-averse; you may avoid political discussions at all costs. But here’s the deal: if you have values that you believe in, that you would fight for at least on your own behalf if those values were offended, then you are political. Period.
My values drive me every day and I seek to express those values in new and creative ways each time I work. I try to be open and honest about where I'm coming from. The same is true for every writer and every artist. The writer or artist who believes they are not political, are above or “outside” politics, is in fact espousing a political view (one that supports the status quo, by the way).
What makes us political is our values as we express them, whether through the way we create or work, or in the way we live. I remember attending a "protect immigrants" march in Boston in 2017 (my mother was an immigrant), and seeing a sign that still inspires me: "They thought they could bury us, but they didn't know we were seeds." Perfect.
When you offer up your seat on a crowded subway train to an elderly person, when you help a friend who could use some advice, when you offer directions to a stranger who’s lost, or hire someone because they’re the most qualified candidate even when they don’t look like you (yes, that is possible and even, gasp, advisable), you are expressing your values. You’re also expressing them when you don’t offer up your seat, when you don’t help a friend, when you shun the stranger, when you hire someone because they “make me feel comfortable and look just like me” (yay, lack of diversity!).
We are all political, not just in the way we create but in the way we live each day and in every choice we make. Own it. You are political on election day, but you’re political every day when you vote with your choices. All action is political action.
There is no possibility of separating art and politics, but that doesn’t mean art needs to be a bunch of cheap campaign slogans. Art is how the artist sees the world, whether as it is or as it could be or both. Whether in my writing or in my life, I know that I need to be driven by my values. When I’m not, I produce lifeless work. When I care deeply, the writing works because it’s coming from a place of moral clarity and self-realization.
In an era when human decency, empathy, and respect for others are profoundly political (and hotly contested) values, we can’t pretend that our everyday choices aren’t political. Let us embrace the values we hold dear, and let us express our values in the way we create and the way we live our lives each day. Be you -- even when they bury you, be the seed that continues to grow. Make room for others because you might need room yourself. Build community around values. That is art, and it’s politics too.