Vermont Arts Council

Need for Artist Voices Never Greater

I’ve been asked often this year by young writers — and a few dozen young painters, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and photographers I was mentoring at an artists’ retreat in Southern California — whether I view all art as activism.

I wasn’t asked that question much in the previous generation and a half in which I have been writing novels.

But this has been a charged year and I don’t expect 2018 to be any less fraught. All artists are grappling with — and will continue to grapple with — their place in the current social and political landscape: when is art activism and when is it escapism?

Certainly, most Vermonters recall where they were during the most recent Presidential Inauguration on January 20 and the day after, January 21, when women and men around the country marched for human rights, women’s rights, refugee rights, LGBTQ rights, and more. I was on a book tour in January, and I spent a lot of time speaking in red and blue states. And the idea of where my work fit into the social landscape that moment and who was going to read my new novel was more complex than I might have expected.

Emotional Investment

One night in a blue state, the crowd was sparse and the woman who owned the bookstore told me, “I can’t read fiction right now. I just can’t. I’m too depressed and the world is falling apart.” I was in a deep red state on the Saturday of the Women’s March, and there was a massive crowd — almost all female, almost all oblivious to their peers in other states who had donned pink pussy hats as part of a political statement — and they were thrilled to talk about my new novel.

The truth is, some of my novels are more political than others. I’ve written about domestic violence, sexual assault, animal rights, human trafficking, and genocide; but I’ve also written about dowsing, haunted houses, and Little League baseball. What prompts me to decide on a subject? It’s pretty simple: am I so interested in the topic personally that it will inspire me to climb from my bed at six in the morning and sit at my desk for the next six or seven hours? It’s all about the emotional investment I am prepared to make.

What is not simple, however, is the price artists are willing to pay for work that is political.

All Activism?

The truth is, not all art is activism — and it probably shouldn’t be. I’m sure there are choreographers and directors who could turn “The Nutcracker” into a whale of a tale about Russian collusion right now. But “The Nutcracker” is such a beautiful, magical, escapist ballet in its own right, why bother turning it into something incendiary? I feel the same way about most episodes of the sit-com, “Friends,” as well as a great many novels I’ve read in my lifetime.

Cover: The Flight Attendant. A novel by Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of "The Guest Room"But that does not mean that we don’t need artists as activists. We do — and we always have. This is especially true right now. As artists, we can take the risks that often politicians won’t. Obviously, artists within the refugee, LGBTQ, and minority communities can speak for themselves — and do so eloquently and passionately. But even those of us who are (and let’s be clear and honest) privileged because we have a Y chromosome or U.S. citizenship or skin pigmentation that decreases the likelihood a police officer will stop us while driving, can still stand with the beleaguered and add our voices to theirs.

Moreover, we can and must experiment — and we can and must approach our creations with a take-no-prisoners willingness to transcend who we are and the echo chambers of our own life experiences. After all, so many politicians speak only to their own followers, and their followers only hear what they want. We’re all guilty of that, regardless of our side of the political aisle.

But think of the movies and novels and paintings and musicals and photographs that have caused us to look at the world a little differently.

E. M. Forster once said, “Fiction is truer than history because it goes beyond the evidence.” That’s true of a lot of art, because a lot of art is about something that a lot of politics is not: empathy.

Yes, there will always be risks to artistic empathy. There will be art that fails and art that succeeds, but still a wide swath of the world ignores it. Trust me: it’s easy to alienate a part of your audience because they disagree with you politically.

But the risk of doing nothing? It is far, far worse.

Chris Bohjalian

Chris’ most recent novel, “The Sleepwalker,” was published in paperback this autumn. His twentieth novel, “The Flight Attendant,” will land on March 13, 2018.

— top right photo by Roya Ann Miller on Unsplash

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