Friday, September 14, 2012

World Changing Art: the Conflagration Edition

Yesterday I heard many news reports about the unravelling situation in the Mideast, along with a bit of analysis here and there of the film/film trailer that seems to have sparked these assorted riots, if riot is a severe enough word.  I must confess to thinking:  this amateur object has wrought all of this violence and death?  THIS film-like thing????

I think of when I used to tell my students that art and other creative acts can change the world.  I was always hoping to inspire them to change the world for good with their art and to remind myself that change for the good is possible.

Did the makers of the film intend to wreak this violence?  Are they watching in horror or glee? 

I find myself thinking of what societal changes I'd like to create with my art.  I wrote to a friend and colleague yesterday about my frustration with my inability to give my department members what they needed, like full-time jobs and fully paid health insurance.  I closed by saying, "If I ruled the world . . ."

My friend and colleague wrote back to say, "What's the first order when you begin your ruling???"

I wrote back:

"First order: no one goes to bed hungry!

Second order: anyone in a violent relationship is rescued!

Third order: medical care for all!

No, medical care will be 4th. Third Order: Housing for all!

Next, I’ll tackle the education system, when everyone is safe, fed, well, and housed."

I love this vision, but I don't have a clear idea of how my art might move the world closer to my vision.

I think of the 19th century writers, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Upton Sinclair (OK, he's early 20th century) and Elizabeth Gaskell, writers who motivated people to make social changes by documenting the squalor and desperation of the impoverished people.  I think of utopian writers who motivated readers towards social change by describing how wonderful life would be if we just lived in a different way.

As I think about writers who have changed the world, all the writers who come to mind are novelists and investigative journalists.  Can poets change the world for the better if they're not songwriters?

Yesterday I was talking to some friends about all the various reports I've written as an administrator, reports that as far as I can see, no one has ever read or only one dean has read before we shifted approaches, and I had to write a different kind of report.  I quipped, "Luckily, I'm a poet.  I'm used to writing things that no one will ever read."

But maybe being an administrator is like being a poet in a different way:  I write, not knowing exactly how my work will be utilized in the future.  I've hunted out reports written by people no longer with us when I've needed a sense of history and what has been tried before.  Maybe in the future, someone will find the reports that I've written to be valuable in ways I can't anticipate now.

I think of William Blake who was hardly read at all during most of his lifetime.  But he still continued creating and illuminating these beautiful poems, even knowing that only 10-20 people would read them immediately.

I would still write even if my poems were never read by anyone but me.  The connections I make delight me.  And when I go back to type my poems into the computer, often a year or more later, I'm often stunned by what I've created:  I wrote THAT???? How cool.  Those experiences alone would be worth it to me.

But I am a child of the post-MLK era.  I would like my life to make a difference.  I will continue swimming in that direction.

And in the meantime, I'll remain grateful that if my work has not yet changed the world, at least there's no conflagration raging because of something I've created.

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