Sustaining Art’s/Our Response, & Considering How We Make It by Wesley Rothman

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

—Ursula K. Le Guin, 2014 National Book Awards

I recently spent a couple weeks in Vermont, early January, with little snow but temperatures that fluctuated between about 25˚F and -15˚F. Through the town zagged the Gihon River. I was fortunate to have a window overlooking a stretch of it. The Gihon in Vermont shares its name with one of the four rivers said to have issued forth from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, since it issues forth from Lake Eden, a little farther upstate. When I arrived for my brief sojourn, the banks of the river were slightly frozen, a bit snowy, but the maybe fifty-foot width of the river flowed and rippled, every drop seemed in unison or play. As temperatures dropped, long nights continued to visit, each day the surface cinched its seam a bit tighter, until after ten days the seal completed. Looking out my window, there was no more movement except for some dainty underbrush that rustled with a nothing breeze. The river had felt more alive when I could see it moving, carrying chunks of ice downstream, swirling, dodging the frozen banks that encroached like an invading force.

I had been told the river’s surface would likely freeze before I left, but witnessing the movement seal over to stillness came with its brand of sadness. This same gradual freezing over seems true of art’s response to socially and politically charged times. Just as in media coverage, after a time, all stories stop being stories. But art aspires to be more than media coverage. It is involved with what happens in our society in a way the media cannot be, or shouldn’t be.

It seems fair to conclude that art reflects its time, the history that led up to it, maybe more specifically how the artist fits into that time, responds to it. How an artist—a person shaped by personal and collective history—responds to the social, political, emotional climate of the time is essential for us writers and visual artists and musicians and scholars and educators and family members to consider. How we respond, the shape and tenor of our voice, our posture and content, our intentions and how our work departs from them, these are all elements of our living and creating that we must take into account if we hope to be productive contributors to our world.

I’ve often heard artists and writers speak about their work as separate from themselves, and this is true to an extent because our art goes off into the world beyond our own lives and is able to work in ways over which we have no control. However, art also always reflects its creator, even when it moves beyond the tether of control or explanation. When that art consciously responds to sociopolitical matters, the work reflects an invested artist, an aware effort, and developed consideration. But not all of us are invested, aware, and/or have developed considerations. So since art reflects the time and its creator’s perspective, artistic responses to social and political situations also risk advocating problematic belief systems. And this is where our consciousness, our presence and commitment, our human involvement with society crisscrosses with our art most prominently. How we create obviously has a great deal to do with what we create—a form of our response is extended by our art. This means some of us must continue to speak as we have been, while others of us will have to educate ourselves further, grow our sense of empathy and awareness of power economics, hear what may make us uncomfortable, and speak what we may not yet be confident to utter. We must continue to undergo an interior transformation, inform ourselves so that our art may inform or challenge others. Our art comes with responsibility.

To say that there has been a recent boom of creative work responding to, protesting, condemning the non-indictments of Michael Brown’s killer and Eric Garner’s killer among other murders and injustices, addressing systemic social and political racism, is certainly an understatement. Blogs, art and literary magazines, Twitter, Tumblr have all become spaces of creative community, places where artists and writers are actively responding in great numbers. And in addition to these real time dialogues, we have seen numerous books published in recent months that seem all too timely, though they have been in the works for years. Recent books that directly address our nation’s deeply held racial prejudices, the destruction and death they employ, include Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, Jake Adam York’s Abide, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Ailish Hopper’s Dark~Sky Society, Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and Allyson Hobbs’s A Chosen Exile. Recent art exhibitions also continue to explore critically race in America, perhaps most notably Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety.” And the immediacy of this art reminds us that these systemic prejudices have flared recently in the public eye, but have always smoldered in our American communities. This work also reminds us that some artists remain committed to addressing our times and trespasses, even when the news turns its focus to other concerns.

Of course racial and gender and sexual prejudices have persisted for as long as America has been a union, since before its declaration of independence. And throughout that time, Americans have responded to these prejudices in their art and lives. But there are frequent balloons of activity, moments when the artistic dialogue expands and flourishes until it calms and only a few voices remain. Let our current awareness, our attention and reflection persist. Since our art reflects our time and our own place in it, we must hold onto our consciousness, keep writing and painting and singing into the questions we can’t yet answer, hold the mirror up to ourselves, and look patiently, listen intently, crafting what we hear, always questioning. One of our greatest failures as artists might be ignoring or forgetting, what might appear or feel like moving on. When we come back around to August of this new year, will we still be concerned with the non-indictment of a young man’s killer? Will we have departed from our consideration of the social and political forces at work? There will be many still concerned, still considering, but as history has shown, by then the din of voices will have hushed quite a bit. Let us defy history.

I’d like to echo poet Danez Smith, from his “Open Letter to White Poets:”

My family, and I pray we can call each other family, I am asking you to do what you do best: Write...

We must create work that refuses to leave this world the same as when we entered. We do not have the luxury of only writing the selfish confession, we must testify in our court of craft that these poems we write are bold, unflinching, and unwilling to stale idle in a geography of madness. We must demand of ourselves to write the uncomfortable, dangerous, shift-making poems.

We must do what we do best: create art that reflects our time, but also engages it, challenges it, pushes our consciousness as creator and audience to imagine and realize how our collective future will be different, more hopeful than today, more loving and embracing of our ranging humanity. If we consistently roll forward our art, we will roll ourselves forward, not only when injustice is loudest, but always.

We may not exist beyond the cyclical nature of history, the cyclical impulse of nature, but we have our will, we have something live in us that can thrash about, bust through the ice trying to seal over our current.

Some resources and forums to watch or join:

Tyehimba Jess


The Outrage Project

Hands Up Don’t Shoot (Winter Tangerine Review) 


Split This Rock

Danez Smith

Ursula K. Le Guin


My thanks to Renee Simms and Gila Berryman.