Sunday, October 7, 2018

All Good Art is Protest Art

The original meaning of the word ‘protest’ in old French was: to make a solemn declaration, and even before that, going back to Latin, to witness, to declare publicly.

I like the idea of protest as a solemn declaration and witness, because that leaves us free to distinguish protest from anger. We can protest with a spirit of good will, even with love.

It’s also true that at the solitary end of the continuum of protest are single human cries of helpless outrage, the hotel maid being molested by Harvey Weinstein, the Muslim refugee assaulted by a mob of white nationalist thugs.

Expanding from individual to the group takes us into the controversial realm of identity politics, where each separate religious or ethnic or racial category asserts its justification for protesting threats to its essential dignity.

For example, Black Lives Matter. In the light of the deep structural racism in the United States, it’s impossible, for me at least, not to identify and sympathize deeply with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Whether we subscribe to identity politics or not, every time the police shoot a black man or boy under murky circumstances, it gives a new lease to the polarization between races that has been a fundamental theme of American history from slavery forward.

Meanwhile we remain in this awkward in-between state in race relations where Black Lives Matter is often countered with the obvious bromide that All Lives Matter—as if Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter were somehow in conflict.

What’s really in conflict seems to be various modes of identification. Am I an American citizen first and only then someone of a particular race? Of course it would be healthier if we got to the point where all of us could identify first of all as Americans. This was clearly the vision of Martin Luther King.

An even larger context of identification is available, and necessary at this moment in time—the indisputable fact that we are one humanity, living on one small planet—where, someday, racism will be seen as a tragic illusory social construct that obscured this deeper unity.

Going even beyond the human, we might ask, who will protest for natural phenomena, for rivers that have become polluted? In Ecuador and elsewhere, rivers are now given constitutional rights to flow freely and cleanly.
Our biggest international challenge has become climate. Even nuclear war has been redefined, by nuclear winter, as a way to effect climate change suddenly rather than gradually.

In the case of our own heavy use of resources in the advanced industrial countries, as Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is—us. Our own choices are intimately involved in solutions. How do I protest the size of my own ecological footprint? And how, or where, do we protest overpopulation in the advanced nations, where each person uses multiple times the resources of people in developing countries?

In any case it is becoming clearer every day that our materialist, consumerist values are not working for us. They are unsustainable.

In his watershed 1967 speech at Riverside Church shortly before he was assassinated, Dr. King took the considerable risk of connecting domestic conditions in the United States with the Vietnam war, which allowed him to show the interrelationship of racism, militarism and materialism—our nation’s continuing trefecta of original sin.

King dared to connect American racism toward blacks with racism against Asians. This continues in the racism of western cultural attitudes toward peoples in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen.

50 people blown up by terrorists in western countries is front-page news for weeks. 50 people blown up in Afghanistan elicits a shrug and a yawn in the western press. Here might be a good place to apply the slogan “All Lives Matter.”

King was inspired by Gandhi, and Gandhi’s civil disobedience tactics in turn by Thoreau and so on back to Magna Carta-type moments when the absolute rights of kings and emperors were first called into question, all the way back to strikes of workmen building the pyramids.

The mansion of protest has many rooms, depending upon whether one grows up as male or female, or privileged white, or not so privileged black, poor or hungry or wheelchair-bound or transgender or Muslim.

So many contentious issues and questions arise. Should abortion be restricted? Who decides that? Are corporations people? Is money speech? Is the supreme court above politics? In each case one’s personal spectrum of indignation, or loving activism and witness, is going to be different.

There was a recent controversy over whether the white female artist Dana Schutz has the right to make a painting of the black civil rights martyr Emmett Till.  It is difficult to understand why people spend energy on such a seemingly artificial controversy.

In the Marlon Brando film about biker gangs, “The Wild Ones” someone asks him what he is rebelling against. He replies “Whaddaya got?”

My own primary issue for the past fifty years has been nuclear war prevention.

If one is going to protest something, I would assert this is just a touch more significant than whether a white artist has the right to paint a painful event in black civil rights history.

Brian Swimme’s “Journey of the Universe” addresses the great story that is the context for our human presence, the 13.85 billion year story of the evolution of stars and galaxies, planets, life, and self-conscious life that now has brought such dire peril upon itself.

From the perspective of this story, self-aware life arriving at a level of technological sophistication where they can utterly destroy themselves constitutes an event of cosmological significance.

I’d like to advance the notion of the Trident submarine as a quasi-cosmological event, which might seem an odd way to think about it.

The Russians were the first to combine a nuclear submarine with a nuclear ballistic missile. The American equivalent, the Ohio class Trident, is a 560 foot technological marvel. It contains 24 multiple warhead nuclear missiles with a greater combined firepower than all the weapons used in both world wars. In fact, it may be possible for one such submarine all by itself to cause a planetary nuclear winter. The British and the Russians and others have equivalent programs.

The theory behind such weapons is of course deterrence, which contains a built-in performative contradiction: so that they will never be used, they must be kept ready for instant use. This requires that we gloss over the reality that every weapon ever invented, including nuclear weapons, has ended up being used in war.

Not only global security, including our own, but all human existence, including our own, depends upon no one among the nine nuclear powers making a mistake, no one ever misinterpreting an incoming signal, no piece of electronic equipment malfunctioning or becoming vulnerable to cyber-attack.

Simple logic and basic probability theory tell us that such perpetual flawlessness is far too much to ask of complex systems and fallible humans. Nevertheless governments enthusiastically accept this devil’s bargain and we citizens passively put up with it.

My partner and I were showing our grandchildren around Washington D.C. the same week that Trump gave his bizarre speech to the boy scouts.

A congressional aide was giving us a tour of the Capital building. At one point he paused to confer with an aide to the president. I figured this was as close as I was ever going to get, and so I cast aside my inhibitions and risked asking the question that has been on a lot of minds: just how accessible are the nuclear codes to the President? 

The aide gave me a frozen stare and reminded me that Mr. Trump was the duly-elected head of state.

Later I happened to read Daniel Ellsberg’s great book about nuclear strategy, The Doomsday Machine.

It turns out it’s a myth that only the president can begin a nuclear war.  Deterrence could not possibly work if that were the case, so there have to be others down the chain of command who can retaliate if for any reason the president is unable to. This seems to be true with Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons, which are under the autonomous command of field generals.

The fact is that no individual, no matter how sane and stable, and no matter where in the chain of command, should be put in the position of deciding to launch a nuclear war.

It is hard to believe the military in the various nations are not well acquainted with nuclear winter. On some level they must know the game is over—forever. Deterrence, with its endless dynamic of “we build—they build,” offers no way out of omnicide. The 122 nations that have signed the U.N. declaration against these weapons have accepted this.

In terms of the possibility of effecting change, it’s always helpful to remember that many nations have endured and continue to endure much worse than what we are facing now in our country.

At opportune moments small groups of trained non-violent activists obtain unexpected leverage as they merge with larger groups of protesters.

One of my mentors once told me that the actual translation from the Aramaic of “Blessed are the meek” from the Sermon on the Mount is: blessed are the trained.

Activists have won tremendous victories against oppression using some of the hundreds of non-violent strategies catalogued by the great contemporary tactician of non-violence, Gene Sharp. Very few Americans have heard of Gene Sharp, who was a professor of political science at U. Mass and lived in East Boston.

Sharp’s tactics have been a bible for many non-violent revolutions around the world, such as the People Power revolution in the Philippines against Marcos, or the mothers of the disappeared in Chile who helped to bring down Pinochet, or the womens’ movement that won non-violently in Liberia. The overall record of non-violent campaigns is as good or better as violent ones.

There’s another cosmologically-tinged event we can recall, complementary to the destructive capacity of a ballistic missile submarine.

On February 15, 2003, the largest protest march in the history of the world occurred in 600 cities around the globe.

Everyone knew that the United States had decided to invade Iraq, using the shaky rationale that there had to be weapons of mass destruction there somewhere.

Our government was about to choose a cynical,violent and confusing overreaction to the horrors of 9/11, the unintended consequences of which remain with us still. 

While that 2003 march failed to stop a misguided and unnecessary war, it demonstrated a fundamental impulse to unity and peace in people everywhere, a unity which may still be a dream, but is also a functional reality. This worldwide march was something new, not the German tribe or the French tribe or the American tribe, but the human tribe.

Mass marches can often be festive. Citizens discover to their delight and relief that many others share their views.My partner and I walked in Portland, Maine with her grandchildren in both the women’s march in January of 2017 and the march for sane gun regulation after the Parkland shootings.

Yes, after the marchers go home, the business of working for democratic change remains messy, slow, frustrating, and endless. But witnessing together can inspire us for the more mundane and necessary work.

Meanwhile many of our would-be kings and emperors around the world continue to be indifferent to or actively hostile toward the health of the earth and its billions of striving humans sharing universal hopes and fears. 

We are surrounded everywhere by the consequences of the violent misuse of power, in the callous slaughters in Syria, or Myanmar, or the Congo, or South Sudan.

Setting aside actual violence, when the President’s lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, asserts that white collar crime is victimless, something primal is revealed about the hypocrisy and rank injustice of established structures of power.

These structures mock the principle that all are created equal, with a perverse version of the Golden Rule: those with the gold make the rules.

Of course artists have always lent their gifts to clarifying such issues. Last year there was a large exhibition of protest art that went back centuries on display at the British museum.

Last year also we took in a retrospective at the Whitney of protest art in America in the sixties. It contained many provocative works documenting opposition to sexism in the art world, race prejudice, and our endless, futile wars. 

The exhibition also underlined the challenges of making art based upon a response to immediate events and discrete social issues.
Though sometimes amusing, it felt more like a thin documentation of an eventful time that artists were compelled to witness as best they could, rather than an expression of the whole personalities of gifted creative people.

Back in August, a group of British artists found out that a London museum exhibiting their works of protest art had held a reception for a defense company in order to raise cash. The artists protested by removing their work from the museum—a kind of self-cancelling protest . . .

Even after we have witnessed against the horrors of militarism, or racial injustice, immutable aspects of reality remain, including disease, absurd ill-fortune, and death. 

This goes all the way back to Job. How do we protest the absurdity that is woven into reality at a level even deeper than potentially avoidable injustice? In the old religious language, God’s stern response to Job’s protestations was, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

To say it another way, our protests take place in the context of a power greater than ourselves, whether we end up calling it God or the Universe or the Tao or Jung’s synchronicity or the unnamable, a mystery so profound and humbling that the purpose of many of our religious and cultural rituals is to try to reduce it to something comprehensible.

The arts are one of the ways to acknowledge the mystery in all its incommensurability.

Artists often begin in a state of unease or vague dissatisfaction, what Freud called ‘ordinary unhappiness.’ We label the ordinary unhappiness of certified artistic geniuses ‘divine discontent’—a sublimation of outrage or wonder into the clarity of aesthetic form—like Beethoven composing his late string quartets in a state of total job-like deafness, illness, and solitude. Still he called the slow movement of the 15th quartet “a holy song of thanks to the divinity.” In the greatest art protest and grateful affirmation become one.

Art emerges from the context of our strange birthright, the beauty and grace that suffuses the mystery along with absurdity and tragedy.

This beauty, most familiarly experienced in nature or in erotic or romantic or spiritual longing, can torment us as much as the worst injustice. At the very least beauty reminds us that the mystery of life is not defined only by death and ill-fortune.  

One of the judges in the Hague overseeing the trial of Slobodan Milosevic said that to recover his sanity after a day of listening to the catalog of atrocities he would go to the local museum and soak himself in the Vermeers.

W.H. Auden said—debatably— “poetry makes nothing happen,” but art in itself and by itself can protest aspects of reality that are intolerable.

Camus’s extraordinary polemic The Rebel includes a brief section on metaphysical rebellion and art, where he argues that great art protests the unsatisfactory elements of reality by correcting or completing them. He meant that art does that purely by means of art itself—by means of the closed system of the novel, the poem, the painting, where the artist can be totally responsible for the work.

So for Camus, every effective work of art is a kind of protest.

Perhaps the most complete response to the strange mix of the intolerable and the beautiful of life can be found in song.

The composers and songwriters are the most consoling companions when one needs art that does justice to life in all its paradox—in our own time songsters like that greatest of American protesters, Pete Seeger, or Leonard Cohen—or my contemporary Bob Dylan.

Even an early classic Dylan song like “With God on Our Side” remains timelessly universal and relevant, though Dylan quickly began to chafe under the limits of being labeled a mere commentator on the issues of the day. Dylan’s genius pushes restlessly to get beyond such a limited conception of his own possibilities.

You can see this happening at one of his early press conferences. A reporter asked the young Dylan how many other protest singers existed.

Dylan thought, then replied, "about 136." Dylan’s sardonic smile should have been a warning, but the reporter persisted. "You say about 136 -- or exactly 136?" "either 136 or 142," Dylan answers helpfully.

Dylan went on to write well over four hundred songs and counting over a lifetime. Dylan’s music and the poetry of his words consistently manage to integrate disparate realities, violence and peacefulness, politics and private life, innocence and corruption, loving kindness and rank hostility.

I thought the Nobel award to Dylan was inspired—though it was amusing to hear Philip Roth quip, with a nice edge of Rothian bitterness, shortly before he died: “Next year maybe it’ll be Peter, Paul and Mary.”

Fifty years later Dylan is still writing gorgeous pieces like “Mississippi,” “Not Dark Yet,” “Things Have Changed”— rueful musical protests of life’s inevitable outrages.

Simply presenting a new vision of what ought to be can be a powerful form of protest. We protest injustice and cruelty because we sense, by way of the truth, beauty and goodness in nature or the arts, or in the people we love and admire, that a more just world is possible.

The success this past summer of the documentaries about Fred Rogers and Ruth Bader Ginsburg testifies to this longing, which is especially strong right now.

No less than Jesus himself taught that we should “resist not evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In a similar vein, Buckminster Fuller thought it was as important to create an attractive new model than to tear down an obsolete or corrupt one. Don’t waste energy, he said, trying to destroy the dinosaur, but instead focus on creating the gazelle.

I volunteered for 30 years for Beyond War, an organization that believed that education and building relationships with adversaries was a better use of one’s time and energy than protest. Obviously protesting and building relationships with adversaries doesn’t have to be an either/or. It can be a both/and.

Beyond War used to get sniped at by both the left and the right. The left thought we weren’t angry enough, and the right thought we were a bunch of idealistic commie pinkos.

But I am proud of how, in the 1980s, Beyond War brought together teams of high-level scientists from both Russia and America to write a book about accidental nuclear war and how best to prevent it. The really important element of the book, called "Breakthrough," was that lasting relationships were formed between Russian and American scientists. The Russian team included Gorbachev’s science advisor, and so Gorbachev himself read it.

Wallace Stevens defined one of the subtlest forms of protest in art when he said in a poem called “Man Carrying Thing,” that “a poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully.”

What that might mean is that popular entertainment is full of formulaic manipulative tropes which confirm easy assumptions about violence, heroism, patriotism, and most of all love.

The world of authentic art challenges such assumptions with ambiguities, putting us back in touch with the depths of mystery by undermining our tendency to understand too quickly.

Here’s a quotation by Lewis Hyde I like which corraborates my assertion that all good art is protest art.

“Art does not organize parties, nor is it the servant or colleague of power.

Rather, the work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit. It is a political act to create an image of the self or of the collective . . .

So long as artists speak the truth, they will, whenever the government is lying, or has betrayed the people, become a political force whether they intend to or not.”

If I had to pick one novel that in my judgment paints an accurate picture of how things are in all their complexity, it might be Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” It satisfies both Lewis Hyde’s and Camus’s criteria for truthfulness.

As for the visual arts, the great flourishing of action painting and sculpture in the fifties and sixties in Manhattan—art which refused to be easy and accessible—was in part a response to the condition of potential atomic extinction with which most of us have been living since we were born.

The work of greats like Louise Nevelson and Jackson Pollock swept aside the leftist socially engaged art between the world wars in favor of all-out statements of artistic identity.

Mark Rothko asserted that only art on the level of a new myth could constitute an adequate response to the threat of nuclear annihilation.

This is where the heroic effort of a painter like Giorgio Morandi becomes interesting in its apparent unwillingness to become socially engaged. What could be more harmless, more utterly useless and irrelevant, than Morandi’s lifetime involvement with his pathetic cast-off bottles and bowls? And yet his work as a whole provides an immense spiritual reservoir—especially for his fellow artists.

A painter like the late Neil Welliver, one of the finest artists associated with the Maine landscape, was a protest artist in at least two senses. First, he endured a horrific series of personal tragedies that included loss of more than one of his children, and a fire that destroyed hundreds of his paintings.

After his son was apparently murdered in Thailand, Welliver did a series of eloquent late paintings of burnt-over woods—though he said he didn’t know whether the death of his son had influenced his choice of motif. The cogency and serenity of his work is an implicit protest against and creative response to his Job-like personal trials.

Welliver’s depiction of the power and beauty of untouched nature is also one long solemn declaration as to what’s at stake in the assault on the biological world, our environmental support system.

The art of visionaries like Morandi or Rothko or Nevelson or Welliver becomes valuable insofar as it speaks of worlds and possibilities that may be uncapturable by the headline news. The serenity of a Morandi painting protests the tiresome, banal drumbeat of historical catastrophe with a human wholeness.

To return to the political, there is one other form of solemn declaration, of protest, that fortunately is available to us, and that is to vote.

I’ll end with the last stanza of the great Auden poem of protest against fascism, “September 1, 1939.” Unfortunately, it remains all too relevant to our situation today:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the just
Exchange their messages:
May i, composed like them
Of eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.