Sunday, January 22, 2017
The Role of Artists/Writers in the New Administration
I can't think of a better title for this, one that doesn't make me uneasy.
First of all, I know dozens, maybe hundreds of others have already written comments, essays, blog posts, and messages of this nature. Second, who am I to take on this topic, to outline ideas that are essential to any involvement within a creative community, whether said community is made up of writers, visual artists, musicians, or spoken word artists? As I've mentioned in other venues, I've long struggled with calling myself an artist; I still do. One of my favorite feminist slogans is "carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man." I take this to heart, because I don't want to come across like I'm telling people what they should do; these are simply ideas that make sense to me. Also, we're in a moment of history when I wish the president was simply mediocre, rather than a danger to all.
The reason I'm writing this: over the last several weeks, I've seen many variations on this sentiment: "Everything will be terrible, but the art will be fantastic." I find this to be a very troubling idea, because, while true in an abstract way, it's a sign of privilege. At its core, this belief states: "Women are still going to be treated a second-class citizens, this administration will do nothing for transgender rights, people of color will be given less respect thanks to a re-emphasis on a police state, and the physical country will be likely to be ripped apart for resources and bottom lines- but the novels will be great!"
Yes, great writing and art will be byproducts of this administration. But great, necessary work would come even if everything was as close to perfect as we want it to be. There will always be problems that require us to dig deep and create out of a sense of empathy and as a way to verbalize troubles, fears, and longing. So even if politicians were focused on funding Planned Parenthood, if the new presidential team insisted on giving full protections and rights to transgender citizens, and if the GOP reached out to listen to the concerns of Black Lives Matter advocates, we as creators would still be beset by daily struggles, lust, dead-end day jobs, and a constant search for meaning, whatever that meaning can be: so there would still be room for creative growth, experimentation, and a desire to put new ways of looking at our lives into the world.
So the art that's to come? I'm not concerned the forthcoming novels with Trump-like dictators and post-apocalyptic themes that examine how our country and world will look next year, or at the end of the current term (assuming he makes it that long without an irrevocable scandal, but shit: if his current scandals weren't enough, I can't imagine anything else impeachment-worthy).
I am concerned with marginalized writers. I don't want a woman or a transgender artist to have to create out of fear or feeling lost in today's climate, but if their creations come out of that, I want to support them. If cops continue to murder unarmed black citizens, I'll buy and read a novel by a black writer about the subject, but I won't sit there thinking "hooray for today's world! It produced this terrific book!"
In a recent Facebook post, comedian Patton Oswalt offered ideas for thriving and living in this administration. One of his suggestions: "Go to an independent bookstore and buy something from a small press." This is essential, and I'm making this a call to everyone, especially myself, to put more money into independent presses, especially those who publish diverse voices. It's one thing to share an online story, but we as a community need to do more. Look yourself in the mirror. Look at what you normally spend money on. Of course, 99.9999 percent of us are poor or just scraping by. We'd love to be in a financial position to drop $100 on a small press spending spree. But look at your packs of cigarettes, your occasional $25 bar tabs, the sandwiches you buy because you didn't feel like slapping together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Of course, I'm not suggesting a high and mighty "don't spend money on these things," but make sacrifices when you can. Scrape together cash and support a small press. Contact a favorite literary magazine and ask if they take donations to pay their writers. Most importantly, especially if you're a straight white writer like myself: don't think about how your own work will benefit from this terrible climate. Make sure you're actively supporting the voices that need to be heard.
I made the following suggestion to the newly formed Obama Foundation. Their website is seeking calls for ideas, so I wrote this message to them:
To the Obama Foundation: my name is James Yates, and I'm a writer based in Lafayette, Louisiana. I'm very much troubled by the proposed cuts to the NEA, and other programs aimed at financial support of the artistic communities. Depending on the finances of the Obama Foundation, I'd like to see money and time spent to creating grants and scholarships for diverse voices, especially writers who are women, transgender, and non-white. Many writers struggle financially, and in these times, their stories and voices need to be heard more than ever. I'd love to see attention devoted to the creative community, through workshops, financial support, and visibility. I hope this makes sense, and I'm happy to share more ideas if necessary. Thank you so much for your time. Sincerely, James Yates
These are trying times, and it's only going to get worse. Writers have a responsibility. Let's keep moving.