Where Have All the Artists Gone?

I read an essay the other day that posed the question “Why aren’t more poets politically involved?” So I said, “Yeah, why aren’t they?”

This reminded me of a time back in 2004 when I was still a student at the University of Minnesota and I went to a reading by Robert Bly, who shortly thereafter was named Poet Laureate of Minnesota. Bly has a long history of political engagement, most notably as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam (to note it lightly). Between poems, he was quick to wonder out loud to the audience the same question as the essay I mentioned.

Where are the poets writing grand verse in opposition to the war? During the 1960s, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting at least one! (Paraphrased, not actually what he said.)

And you know, he was right. First of all, he was there during the ‘60s, so he certainly knew well enough what was going on. But today, there’s an awful lot of silence. There has been for most of the years the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on.

And of course, it’s not just poets. It’s artists of all mediums and genres. And whereas there has certainly been dissent against the war, not nearly to the scale that was seen against Vietnam.

I see this as a problem, and not just because I’m not for the wars. Have we become so complacent with the world we’ve developed around ourselves that we can’t see beyond our noses to what’s happening in our name both at home and abroad? I see this as more than just dissent. I see it as conscious involvement in something greater than one’s self. And that goes for whether you’re for or against the wars; whether or not you feel they’re just.

So my point is basically this: There seems to be fewer people nowadays who stand up and make their case for a cause they feel is worthy by using art.

I see two reasons for this.

One: Poetry and other forms of art have slowly taken a back seat to other forms of media that are far more accessible in the modern age of telecommunications.

And two: It only ‘seems’ that there’s silence.

I know for a fact there is no shortage of artists in this country who take notice of various political action by our government and compose pieces appropriate to their outrage. But unless you’re part of one of these inner art circles, you’re not very likely to hear about it (see reason ‘one’ above). But that doesn’t mean that Bly or the author of the essay I read yesterday are completely wrong with their assertions that there’s a lack of political involvement amongst artists today. For better or for worse, the art culture evolves to represent the modern culture. As it turns out, the ‘60s were a time of heavy popular political involvement, therefore it was represented in the art scene. Today, it’s less so.

But there has been a resurgence.

Over the last few national elections, there have been record numbers of people, especially youth, who are making it to the polls to cast their vote. The same modern means of telecommunication that has been squashing art forms in the national popularity contest has created a new informed population, and many don’t like what they’ve seen. If the numbers at the voting booths are any indication of political involvement, then there are plenty of people who want to stand up and make a case for their cause.

So what’s the problem? Did I just refute the original argument?

Not really. The point still stands that there’s not much political poetry out there that gets any attention out of specific circles. As a poet and writer, I’m a bit saddened by this. I have read a number of fantastic contemporary poems having to do with modern political issues (the wars, etc…), but people don’t take them as accessible, so they get drowned out in the flood of information we all get daily.

Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe not. Either way, it’s the evolution of things. Maybe I’ll just go watch a movie instead.

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One Response to “Where Have All the Artists Gone?”

  1. Nina Says:

    I think you hit it right on the head when you said that most of the political art in existence gets “drowned out in the flood of information.” Fact is our generation (speaking for mine born int mid to late ’70s and all of the ’80s) have grown up on media information overload. There’s so much out there that instead of diving into all that yummy political/cultural goodness, people are more concerned with being able to trust the information source they are relying on. As a result I think a sense of apathay develops. At least that’s how I feel…then again, a healthy dose of laziness on our part as artists could be to blame-along with dozens of other stuff. But, in the words of the apathetic-information-overloaded-mases, it’s like, whatever.

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