How is Art Relevant?

April 29th, 2007

Art is always a product of its time, and speaks back to it in certain ways. It is one expression of who we are, as generations and peoples and eras. So what does art say to us today? Is it a critique, a distraction, or simply a mirror? Is it an escape, or a doorway into our soul? Does it address the big picture, or just some minor detail?

An equally important question, for young artists, is what does art need to say to us today? If art aims to help us to see ourselves, it must see us as we are. Just to speak for my own generation: who are we as Americans, as baby boomers, as the dominant cohort of the early 21st century? Some of us are, to be sure, the proverbial aging hippies – middle-aged peaceniks, liberals, progressives, well-educated intellectuals who wish to see all cultures flourish. But a majority of our fellow citizens, after all, endorsed Bush over Kerry in 2004, and legitimized a more belligerent, incompetent, and ultimately corrupt government that continues to do harm both to America and to the rest of the world.

This Administration has committed war crimes and crimes against all of humanity; it has violated the rights of Americans and virtually suspended the Constitution; and it has seriously weakened almost every arm of the federal government, from FEMA to the Justice Department, from the EPA to the CIA.

So what should art be saying?

There is no doubt, in my mind, that it should speak to us about global warming. About Iraq. About Darfur. About Katrina. And… about whatever we are busily avoiding about ourselves.

The same is true for literature, and for blogs. This doesn’t mean that we can’t amuse ourselves, from time to time; or speak of positive things; or entertain ourselves with movies, music, or sex. But all this should be within the larger context, which is that we do not know yet how this phase of the human experiment is going to turn out. Are we the generation that turned the corner, and started to leave our history of bloodshed and cruelty and human suffering behind? Our did we contribute to taking humanity further down the long march to species extinction, to global self-destruction?

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