On Art, Ferguson and Fear

I was going to write a post about not seeing a single attractive man during four weeks in Nebraska.

I was going to tell you about the fish fry at the Eagles Club and the wine tasting at the apple orchard where wines labeled “dry” were sweeter than your average juice.

I was going to tell you how I got so tired of myself inside that writing hovel that I resorted not only to binge watching episodes of Nashville, but also to dusting off that old OkCupid account. (At which I have received, among other sundries, the most polite and thoughtful request to participate in a BDSM threesome in the history of such requests.) (Also, and yes I’m using back-to-back parentheticals, panic not: I did make substantial progress on my book.)

I was going to commiserate with you about Minnesota winter: how I’m unsure which is more (so to speak) chilling–not having someone to cuddle with as temps edge to zero, or marching into my early thirties with child-rearing prospects pinned on a crowd of digital avatars, many wearing Packers jerseys or cradling fish.

And then.

And then last week.

Listen. I tend to avoid politics here because that’s not why you come. There are so many others more informed and eloquent than me writing about our world’s varied injustices. (Like him and him, for instance.) Years ago I realized I lacked the ambition for hard-hitting journalism, that my territory is more the stuff of personal relationships.

But that’s only a partial truth. The other part is that I avoid politics for the same reason we tend to avoid many things: out of fear. Fear of offending, fear of getting it wrong, fear of hitting a false note, fear of looking bad.

And if there is one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot in this past week, it’s how fucking dangerous it can be when we let fears drive us.

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Of all the ways in which I am privileged, few felt more important last Tuesday as the one that allowed me (because my work is flexible, because I’m healthy, because I live in Minneapolis and have engaged friends here who tell me what’s up) to spend my noon hour listening to Bryan Stevenson.

It was the day after the Ferguson verdict, and like a lot of you, I didn’t know what to do with myself, and being in a sanctuary full of people hanging on his words (and crying about them, and standing and applauding energetically in response to them) felt perfect.

And oh, he said so much that’s so important. Much of it hinged on this idea: that our culture is so broken, we are so broken, because we have let ourselves be manipulated by fear: we’ve let those in power exploit our fear to put too many people away, to give up on those people while they’re imprisoned, to abandon them further when they come out. We’ve allowed fear to trump everything: human rights and and compassion and redemption and anything like equal justice.

And then, Friday, I took a break from my hermit-happy holiday weekend (reading thisthis and this, all of which I brightly recommend) and went with a friend to see CitizenFour. And there it was again. Say what you will about the film or the filmmaker, Snowden or the Obama administration, the message seemed plain: post 9/11, we’ve let fear be the primary engine of our public policy. In the process, we’ve sacrificed our most basic liberties. Worse, most of us aren’t especially concerned.

It’s hard to know what to do with all the injustice swelling up around us. (Though, certainly, there are things: from hitting the streets to, fellow white folks, engaging where we can). Still, so many of us feel so persistently heavy when meaningful change–in terms of racial equality, Spying In the Name of Safety and countless other national and international fronts–seems so, so far out of reach.

I don’t want to sound righteous. And I don’t have answers. Too often, I let myself simply clamp my ears to it all. It’s another privilege: I don’t have to worry about being unfairly stopped, I don’t have to spend each day worrying that my father or brother or uncle or child will get killed for their race.

And that’s just it: in fact, we are all driven, in varying ways and to varying degrees, by fear. The thing about fear is that it’s human. The thing about being afraid is that we all are.

We can’t inoculate ourselves from fear, but we can choose how we respond: we can strive to not let fear enable decisions that are irrational, or hurt others, or become dangerous.

But perhaps just as toxic an effect of fear is inertia. Fear compels us to hurt, but it can also compel us to sit still: to not make ourselves vulnerable in whatever way.

As I was reckoning with all this I came upon this A.O. Scott article, along with this conversation, on the role of art in politics — specifically, the premise that artists are missing the boat in this time of critical unrest.

This subject came up recently with a pair of grad school friends who I visited in Kansas City. We were driving to the contemporary art museum when I declared that I didn’t think overtly political art could ever be any good; they disagreed on principle, but between the three of us we could only name a single, World War One era poem that belied the thought.

An hour later, gliding past one another at an exhibition of some of the most stunning, evocative paintings I’ve ever seen (by the Chinese painter, Hung Liu), many of which curators had described on small white placards as “overtly political,” I whispered to them: We better have that conversation again. 

Later, we hypothesized that maybe visual art is different, that it’s easier to separate the aesthetic from the subject matter in painting than it is in a story or poem. I’d say the same is true for a song.

Still: it’s more complicated. And not very satisfying.

A.O. Scott pleads that it’s the job of artists to reflect society and all its woes. That resonates.

But I also agree with the artists he gathered, who express that art’s first fealty is to storytelling and true, human characters. No one wants, as the writer Justin Torres puts it, “literature that functions as a rant.”

The hypothesis I served my friend about art’s trouble with politics is that art should ask questions: complicate, not resolve. One way to make art bad is to make it polemical, to make it have something clear and unwavering to say. I do believe that.

But I also want to think there’s a way for art to wade into important issues without serving up a clear, one-note message.

Too: I want to think that what stops me, and other artists, from wading into the issues that trouble us is something other than fear. Because while it’s true that bad art helps no one, it’s also true that there’s no such thing as making things without risk.