Who Cares About Art When Everything is Terrible?

by Mandy J.

 

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”  

-Toni Cade Bambara

 

When I was standing at the top of a hill on Boston Common, looking down over the throngs gathered peacefully for the Women’s March, my first thought (after wondering, “does this pussy hat make my outrage look big?”) was about art. Everywhere I turned, everyday Americans had poured their rage, fear, sadness - and often, senses of humor - into artful signs, posters, costumes, and even puppets. Often these were made by people who never even considered themselves artists to begin with. It was seriously thrilling.  If you were at the march on Washington or any of the sister marches, you know what I mean, but if not (or just for fun), check out this small selection of the creative stuff marchers posted on social media.

The organizers of the Women’s March knew about this intersection of activism and art, and in the lead-up to the march itself they, in collaboration with the Amplifier Foundation, invited artists to submit poster designs. The results are poignant, defiant, thought-provoking, and gorgeous.

Art inspired by, and in service of, the resistance has come from all over. From those protesters who wouldn’t even call themselves artists, from creatives whose art has long been deeply political (see political cartoonists), and from artists who used to keep their politics out of their studio, but felt they could no longer do so. KQED Arts’ series “First 100 Days: Art in the Age of Trump” is a terrific cross-section of the range of art being made in response to the new, orange-hued world order.

As for me, at the time that Donald Trump was elected to the most powerful seat in the world, I was knee-deep in classes for painting and illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design (Continuing Ed). My media of choice were charcoal, graphite, watercolor, and oils. That all changed, nearly on a dime, on November 18th, 2016, when my close group of friends conceived of Daily Grab Back. I’m still in school, but now I illustrate the revolution, one bite-sized piece of activism at time, with my nascent graphic design skills. Life is funny that way.

 

 

But who cares, you say?  I mean… REALLY? Our environment trembles on the brink of disaster, our public schools are imperiled, our democracy is under attack, hate crime is on the rise, and autocracy occupies the White House… who gives two Sharpies about ART at a time like this? For one thing, art can be a central component of social change. Writing about a similar explosion of art during the Occupy movement, Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers wrote, “activist art turns a protest into a spectacle, from a turn-off to a turn-on, from an event ignored to one that is widely reported. The protest itself becomes art.” I definitely see this in our movement. The sea of pink hats on January 21st was the most obvious demonstration of this. Also check out things like the Bowling Green Massacre and “Nevertheless, She Persisted” memes on social media, as well as the logos and other graphics associated with the alt-government Twitter accounts, and even the “missing” stickers placed on milk jugs all over Congressman Paul Cook’s (CA-R) district as a commentary on his availability for a town hall with constituents.

But more than that, a healthy society just needs art - and artists to make it. I don’t want to be a part of a culture that doesn’t nurture creativity in all its forms, political or otherwise. It’s no coincidence that the current administration wants to completely do away with the National Endowment for the Arts AND the National Endowment for the Humanities, making it that much harder for the arts to flourish in the US. 

If you make art, keep making it. If you love art, keep loving it. If you are in a position to support the arts, please do. Those Sharpies? They’re not as cheap as you think and we’re gonna need a lot of ‘em.