The first time I realized the impact of the arts on my life as an activist was after a big loss in the Illinois legislature over public lands on Lake Michigan. At the time I was the State Field Representative for the Sierra Club. I had worked hard lobbying to oppose the sale of 26+ acres of Lake bed and shoreline to Loyola University. The legislature sold it out from under the public. I, along with others, had done everything we could to save that land for future generations and prevent the University from building a sports stadium on a landfill in the Lake. We lost big time. That night I went to hear Tom Paxton at the Old Town School of Folk Music. His beautiful familiar music washed over me, taking the anger and sorrow enough so I could get up the next day and go on. During an intermission he wandered among us and I told him what that night of music meant to me. I told him that I knew I was not alone in the struggle. He hugged me.
Artists are essential for social justice, especially during these days of terrible loss and hard times. I know the environmental movement best and will speak from 30 years inside it. Here’s why I think art is necessary on the journey to a just and whole world.
1) Art can show us a future we want. It is much easier to create a future if we’ve imagined it beforehand. My friend and SEHN board president Peter Montague says we won’t jump off the Titanic unless we see the lifeboats. Artists of all stripes tell stories, make music and paint pictures that show us possibilities for living in ways that give our children a sporting chance. The extraordinary writer Adrienne Maree Brown and other genius justice activists are using the model of Octavia Butler’s science fiction to imagine the future.
2) Art lets the activist know she isn’t alone. I have heard music and stories and seen images that told me there were others out there just like me–they are part of a resistance, a struggle. The struggle for justice can be so lonely. Art tells us our lives have meaning. Tom Paxton’s music did just that on that difficult night decades ago. Joy Harjo’s poetry can light up the darkest night.
3) Art can show truths in ways that startle, move the dial, transform the debate, alter history and perhaps shape the future. Picasso’s Guernica will forever be the image of record for bombing a town of innocents. And sometimes a truth is all we can hold onto in dark times. My dear friend Ilene Evans, musician, story-teller, historian, says that during slavery parents would sing lullabies that told intolerable truths, songs that said things like Momma would be sold tomorrow. Those children needed the truth. They needed that parent’s voice. The only thing strong enough to hold the truth was a song. We have trouble ahead. How do we sing our children to sleep when the bombs are falling on Gaza and the rain does not fall in California?
4) Art speaks to the heart. I do law. The structure of law is analytical and has the power to challenge the mind. But changed minds aren’t sufficient. Minds generally follow hearts. Art is far better at changing hearts than any polemic, argument or set of facts. I have a friend, a painter named Robin Sierra. Her paintings don’t contain many figures, they are outside of words. That is its value to me. I know things when I see her paintings that I couldn’t know otherwise. She speaks color, a primordial language of the sacred world. It is a language even beyond dreams. What I encounter in her paintings is something essential and distilled, a wellspring from which I source a will to live, to persist, to be a guardian.
5) Sharing art, whether it is music, stories, cartoons or murals, can unite a community around beauty or the call for justice. The music of Sweet Honey in the Rock singing the songs of the civil rights movement or the murals in Chicago by Mark Rogovin define the struggle, express the notion that power is communion, give voice to the powerless. That night after Tom Paxton sang, we environmentalists went back to work. We brought a lawsuit under the Public Trust Doctrine and won. The shoreline and lake bed are still public. We won. I will always believe Tom Paxton and his guitar provided some essential nourishment that night. I wonder if we could have won without the gift of his songs.
Art is not optional.