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Defending the Arts in America

Guest post by Pam Batista, Chicago

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This is a rant about art, creativity, and the current state of things in America. I don’t like to get on a soap box, or even address politics, but I feel this needs to be said, and I don’t think I’m alone in my sentiment.

As a creative person, and also not well-to-do, I tire of the talking heads and politicians vomiting up the idea that the arts are “frivolous”, or unimportant; that the idea of investing in something that is not neatly packaged into a commodity is unworthy of attention or respect. (This idea extends to things besides art, which makes it even more poignant to me.)

I shouldn’t have to draw attention to the fact that art and imagination is an integral part of human existence, nor that half the reason we know anything about those who have come before us is because they managed to leave behind an abundance of creative works. Making art is part of human nature. Using our imaginations keeps our minds from becoming stagnant and rigid. Creative expression is what keeps us moving forward and growing. There are those who would argue that it is unnecessary for survival. What folks who think along those lines fail to recognize, is the depth of the human psyche.

If mere survival is the main aim, and life is made up of eating, collecting resources, reproducing and trying not to die or get eaten by something else, it becomes a very two dimensional, and frankly “lifeless” activity. If you cut out all the things except those that are only essential for survival, then you wind up with next to nothing to truly survive for. Existence becomes ascetic, bleak, and meaningless. You could argue that people would find meaning anyway even in a circumstance that is bleak, and you’d be right because  this is the very space where imagination and creativity are born. These things exist because we find ourselves in a precarious position, seemingly against our will, in a world that while we can adapt to it, is still often very hostile to us. It’s a way to cope. Art exists because we need more than just survival. We need meaning, and connection. You can say that this is also the grounds for spirituality, and you would not be wrong.
The human brain is wired to see patterns and meaning in life. It is constantly processing our surroundings, our feelings, our interactions. We tell ourselves internal stories about our world and how we see it, and the beauty is that everyone has a different story. The ancient hunters told stories in caves by painting on the walls long before they could imagine the idea of writing. Why? Because it brought meaning to the routine of their lives. It also connected and bonded them as families and as people. Art and imagination are as much about connection to others outside of us, as it is about our own stories and meanings. We could not survive in this world without a sense of connection. People who are depressed, suicidal, and self hating most often feel alone, disconnected from others, unwanted and unable to truly express themselves.

A piece of art or music, or a written story is not a static thing. Creative acts self perpetuate. The moment you see a painting, or listen to your favorite song, or get absorbed in the characters of a book, you are connecting to the person who created it. You don’t have to know them, you can be miles away and never even meet them, but you are sharing their window of meaning in that moment. You are also connecting to parts of yourself that you aren’t normally aware of, and deepening the understanding of yourself through whatever message or symbolism you take away from the experience. Whether you love or hate a piece of art makes no difference- whatever you feel or think is an automatic response within you that is not necessarily conscious. Thoughts and feelings are fluid, dynamic things that can inspire change, action, generate ideas, and continue the flow of new thoughts and feelings.

People need art, and need creativity to survive, to heal, to connect, to express what is within them, to build ways to make this rock we’re on a better place, even if only in a small way. Everyone is an artist as a child, everyone has the capacity to be creative until they let the world beat it out of them. A world that lacks imagination and that values its creatives less than others, or thinks them unimportant and doesn’t want to foster or support them and that strives to restrict human expression, is a hollow, dark, sad, and unhealthy place. There is no survival in a world like that.

I’m weary of all the crap cropping up in the media, and those who continue to let opinions be treated like facts. I am sorely fed up with the binary thinking, the pointed words used to belittle others and blame the victims, to try and divide, disconnect, control us and make us feel unworthy of ourselves. The people who insist on behaving in this manner are not concerned with humanity, they are concerned only with themselves. Their own greed, their ignorance, their fear is what feeds this. I tire of politicians who greasily pretend to connect with us, when they don’t know the first thing about how we really live and don’t care to try. I’m sick of the talking heads who desire attention. I’ve had it with people in any realm, who insist that extremism and polarization is the right behavior and that compromise with someone different than you is to be feared and hated. They are all behaving like whiny preschoolers having a massive tantrum.

No person is better than another. No person is less deserving of life than another. No person deserves to be devalued, pigeonholed, labeled, abused, or killed because someone else finds them different or is so misguided as to think that they are better than them. The politicians, the radio hosts, and the like who continue to behave like bullies don’t want people to connect. People are easier to control if you pit them against each other, if you make them believe that they are alone, or you tell them that something about them is dirty, or shameful, or unacceptable. You can’t control and use people who are unafraid to express themselves, who aren’t willing to swallow propaganda whole, who can see through the language of fear being used against them.

Those who try to control others via the means of such negativity are indeed bullies, and while I am angry at their behavior, I am also sad for them because they themselves are not whole and don’t even know it. I will never be rich, I will never be in power. I will, like many other artists, likely never be valued in the outside world as I think I should. I will probably always have to struggle to get by, but my vulnerability is not weakness so do not mistake it for such. To be willing to express oneself honestly, whether with words or pictures is to be vulnerable, and it takes courage to do so in this world. One thing that can never be taken is my creativity and imagination, along with my willingness to express it.

Making art does not make people less valuable. “Productive” and “profitable” and two different things. A productive member of society contributes their talents and skills to change things for the better of everyone as well as himself. Profitable is a word that should only be applied to commodities, which are objects- things- not people. A human is not to be measured by perceived monetary value, the same way they are not to be measured by race or gender or any other quality. Humans are not objects or numbers, they are not to be controlled, bought or sold, and to treat them as such is downright cruel. Humans devalue themselves when they continue to treat other people as objects.
Denying the importance of human creativity is to deny a great portion of oneself. The folks who cling so desperately to their rigid mindsets, who feel the need to put others down so they can deflect their own bad behavior, who think somehow they can fill the gnawing gap inside of them with attention, or things, are afraid of their own reflection. The world is not some simplistic place where one point of view is always right, where one book tells you all you need to know, and where everyone has to be the same. I feel sorry for people who are so afraid of this world, that their best means of coping is to deny parts of themselves that are there for the very purpose of helping us bond together and get through it all.
Artists hold up a mirror, constantly to reflect “us” back at ourselves. Sometimes, we see things we don’t like, and we run from them. We are better served by acknowledging the reflections, and accepting them because we all share the same problems and fears, whether or not we are willing to admit them. Creative people are purposeful mischief makers, because we are willing to show the ugliness of the world as much as we are to represent the beauty. Our messages are complicated, nuanced, and deadly personal. And this is why people who crave and have power fear us.
I feel sorry for them for having such narrow views, for thinking that power lies outside of them and that by controlling or manipulating those who are less fortunate, have the “wrong” skin color or religion or sexuality, they can fill the gaping maw where their own personal power and worth should be. For denying in themselves the very things that make them human and whole. The more someone pushes something away, the more telling it is that what they are running from on the outside is hunting them down on the inside. The dearth can’t be filled with money, or trappings, or fame and accolades.
There was a time that I felt so down about being an artist, that I stopped making anything for several months. I was miserable, and felt empty. It was like I had cut off an arm or gouged my eyes out. I would say it was a mistake, but I learned too much from that. I know what empty and unhealthy feels like. I stopped making art because I felt like the world didn’t care, didn’t want what I did, and that my voice didn’t matter. I was wrong. Denying part of who I was, just because I perceived it as having less value because it wasn’t “profitable” or a “necessity” was deeply wounding. It was cruel to do to myself, but it made me realize later that the part of me that imagines ridiculous things, tells silly stories, and makes collages is a piece of my soul, and there is no “living” without that piece.
Making art, like any form of self expression is an act of courage. Devaluing self expression and the people who are brave enough to be honest about themselves, is base cowardice. So the next time I hear someone suggest that the arts are frivolous and must be cut out of schools, I will suggest to them that they try to cut their still beating heart from their own chest and tell me it doesn’t hurt. Or, if I hear that someone was being bullied simply for being who they were, or hear that because someone is poor it’s automatically their fault, I will turn my mirror on them. And they will not like what they see.

Categories: Chicago, Rant
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