The Role of The Artist in Times of Crisis

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

As a writer, I’ve been asking myself what my role must be amid the current Covid-19 pandemic. This question has become more pressing after reading this rallying cry from poet Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

The bravery of doctors, nurses, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and all the other heroes who are placing themselves at great risk to tend to our needs is laying a heavy burden on my shoulders. It feels as if I were sitting on a witness stand, sometime in the future, and being asked by the next generation to give testimony of what I did to contribute to the healing.

The death sentence would be fitting if I was discovered to have done little else than write for personal gain, self-promotion, or simply hacked away to churn gobs of online fluff to increase my follower count. Prior to facing the firing squad, the torture rack would be additionally deserved were I found to have taken advantage of people’s current state of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability to drive traffic to my content by means of clickbait, deceitful promises, or sensationalist headlines.

On the other hand, working on myself right now would not only be selfish, but outright contemptible. About the only useful and honorable self-improvement task I can think of at present is figuring out what part I’ve played in the mess the world is in, and then getting to work to clean it up.

“The man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth is not a candidate for heroism,” wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ “Men must be full of thunder and lightning,’ he added, “not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”

Author Upton Sinclair harnessed the thunder and lightning of his talent to blow the lid off the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat-packing industry in the early 1900s. His book, ‘The Jungle,’ was one of the first works of fiction to lead directly to national legislation that eventually created the Food and Drug Administration.

Rachel Carson refused to be a dispassionate spectator to the ravaging effects on the environment from the indiscriminate use of DDT and penned her famous book ‘Silent Spring’ that spurred the modern environmental movement and led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Photojournalist Jacob Ris documented life in the slums of New York City in the 1890s to expose the upper class to the squalid conditions under which their poorer neighbors lived. The Library of Congress included ‘How the Other Half Lives’ in its list of books that shaped America, noting that after its publication and public outcry over conditions among the immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side, sewers, plumbing, and trash collection were instated in the neighborhood.

The travails of migrants during the Great Depression chronicled by John Steinbeck in ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited his influential novel as the reason for the award.

And that’s precisely what artists do, says Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe, and second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be.”

“Literature has the same impact as a match lit in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. The match illuminates relatively little, but it enables us to see how much darkness surrounds it.” — William Faulkner

With so many fires raging across the world right now, it is easy for writers to default to self-doubt, despair or cynicism, thinking they are unfit for the task or that there is little their words can do to change things. I bet Sinclair, Carson, Ris, and Steinbeck felt the same at some point during their heroic journey. But they kept at it, bravely lighting their matches and exposing the darkness until they finally ignited a wildfire.

As I writer, I want to earn my place in this pantheon of master pyromaniacs; these fire-breathing, thunderous titans of art! Or at least, I hope to rise to the level of seven-year old Benjamin Ball who single-handedly, with simple words and a big heart, gave sea-turtles a fighting chance by convincing the CEO of L.L. Bean to replace plastic straws for paper at every store-café across the country. For while I doubt I’ll be confronted by future generations demanding to know what I did with my creative talent during the current crisis, I do know this: soon enough, I’ll have to confront myself with the question: “How did you help heal the world?” and I want to make damn sure I have a noble answer when that time comes.

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

Next In Line!

My number’s up and I’m scared.

Next in line

Standing at the foot of Dad’s deathbed watching him take his final breaths, I pictured myself at a Deli counter holding a stub with the #A01 and hearing the butcher scream, “next!”

It’s the only time you don’t want to be next in line.

I can’t hand over the ‘lucky stub’ to the person behind me. That’d be one of my daughters and to outlive them would be worse than death. No choice, then, but hope the butcher gets distracted, at least for a while.

I’m 58, and as far as I can tell from those close to me – knees and hips crumbling in their late 60s – I have about ten to fifteen years left of brain and brawn. About the lifespan of a turkey (I just checked) and I’m certain no almighty, benevolent skylord will pardon my execution.

So 15 years at best.

But how can I be so sure?

Like poet Billy Collins, I often worry that a tiny ship of plaque is about to unmoor and set sail across the bloody rivers of my body headed straight to my brain causing a major stroke, paralyzing half my face, and leaving me bloodshot and drooling like a Basset Hound. Or what if, as Collins said, what if Death were already “stepping from a black car parked at the dark end of the lane, shaking open the familiar cloak, its hood raised like the head of a crow, and removing his scythe from the trunk?”

What if?

Yet most of us live our lives as if we were church pillars, meant to last forever. We think 15 years is a long time until it isn’t. Look back 15 years at your life and you’ll know what I mean. Kind of a blur, right?

In youth, we live as if we were immortal. Knowledge of mortality dances around us like a brittle paper ribbon that barely touches our skin. When, in life, does that change? When does the ribbon tighten, until it finally strangles us? – Amadeu de Prado

Not long ago, I found Dad standing on his balcony looking wistfully at the end of another day and asked him what was wrong. “I don’t know where the last ten years of my life have gone,” he said. “They’re just a blur.”

A blur that began in his mid-70s, and, from what I can tell, the previous ten weren’t that memorable and he died with a thousand regrets.

That’s how life often seems, doesn’t it? A blurry madhouse crisscrossed by our darting shadow busy “making a living” while putting our dreams on ice. Postponing, stalling, dithering, delaying… telling ourselves ‘just as soon as…’ while sitting in traffic gripped by the death lock of monotony contemplating the lugubrious parade of our disavowed longings march down the road not taken. ‘Just wait a little while longer…’

But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long road, and the Deli spool won’t stop spitting-out stubs, bringing our number closer.

Should we, then, live like the terminally ill? Assume we’ve been given just one more year and throw caution to the wind?

With that mindset, I’ve been doing just that for the past three years after taking a hard look at the previous ten and horrified by how unmemorable they were. Ask me what I did, and I’d bore you with an explanation rather than a great story. So I broke free.

I realize that having that choice is a privilege denied to many. Born and raised in a poor country, I suspect that any first-world tourist dumb enough to tell an unfortunate fellow in one of my city’s slums to ‘follow his dreams!’ will most likely get laughed at or punched in the face. Adding ‘carpe diem’ to his callous injunctions will probably get him dismembered with a machete. The poor have no choice — period. They do what’s necessary to survive which is often more heroic than doing what you love.

After I fulfilled my obligation of raising my daughters to the point of self-reliance, I reached a crossroads. I could continue on the familiar, ‘safe’ road, gathering wealth for that hoped-for day when I’d feel secure enough to finally unbridle my pent-up longings, or take the riskier path of adventure. Having witnessed my father lose the lion’s share of his savings in the crash of 2008, I chose the latter.

Ask me right now if I made the right choice and I’d equivocate. I can’t tell for sure, and I’m scared.

On the one hand, I’m doing exactly what I love and believe was meant to do with my life, so my days, just like playwright William Herzog’s, feel like one long vacation. “For me, everything is constantly fresh and always new,” he said. “A vacation is [only] a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine.” I know what he means.

Most days, I’m like a child on Christmas morning, waking up at dawn with great excitement for the creative challenges ahead and hardly ever tiring, despite working long hours.

The awareness of ‘The Blur’ has also been a terrifying agent of authenticity. I realized there was no time to waste pretending to be someone I was not. “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly,” says the Bhagavad Gita, and I now get it.

As I age, I have also learned what a true friend is, and so, like an artichoke’s unwholesome bottom leaves, I have discarded those who are unworthy of the name. I don’t have time for that shit anymore.

My whole being has recovered its erotic power, not just in the sexual sense, but in its broader meaning held by the ancient Greeks: the impulse, or desire, that links us to the whole web of life. I have, if you will, fallen in love with life.

But right about now, my love feels unrequited.

I was under the illusion that if one did exactly what one was meant to do in life and brought the gifts of his unique talents to bear on the needs of the world, the world, in turn, would reward him, not lavishly, but with enough to survive with dignity. I’m not seeing it.

I was comforted and inspired by what Johann Goethe said, that the moment one definitely commits, then providence moves too; that boldness has genius, power and magic in it. I’m not feeling that magic either.

I was goaded at the start of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore by serendipitous writings on walls, like, “Don’t let your dreams fall asleep,” and “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Back then, I really felt the Universe had my back.

Taken at an art gallery in Mexico at the start of my adventure.

So far though, the steps keep leading me down a slippery staircase inside what seems a bottomless pit of hardship and despair. I am living the myth of the starving artist and not really enjoying the view. Every time one of my well-intentioned daughters tells me to get a “real” job, I cringe and seethe.

When exactly did art become “unreal”? Was it when we decided that someone skilled at whacking a ball with a stick or good at shooting hoops was worth more than a teacher? How, I ask, would it feel to live in a world with no books, movies, plays, concerts, art exhibits, and so on?

Regardless, I can’t turn back now and rejoin the rat race. People my age appear as unnecessary to society as another pair of shoes in a woman’s closet. Besides, notwithstanding the hardship, I still prefer living on the edge of uncertainty doing what I love, rather than securely shackled to a desk, hating what I do. So deal, right? Grow a pair!

Here’s the scary part, though. If my number’s really up, I mean, like soon, it would make my reckless decision one of the best I’ve ever made. If, on the other hand, the butcher gets distracted for, say, thirty years, I have no idea how I’ll survive.

Author Paulo Coelho better be right when claiming that the road of adventure becomes less daunting over time; that age only slows the pace of those without the courage to follow their true path, and that the world hungers for romance, passion, and daring tales of great endurance.

Otherwise, best to hurry up to the counter and get it over with, or move to Norway, the “best place in the world to be a writer,” though I’d first have to get past my revulsion against Lutefisk and ghostly-white people in tacky reindeer sweaters.


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