Make Art, Not War
by Ted Miller
(originally published February 2017 in Tumbleweird)
The expression of our human experience through art has existed since early humans first painted their stories on cave walls and shared their traditions through storytelling, music, and dance. Art reaches us through our hearts as well as our brains, connecting us on a deep emotional level. In all its forms, art is fundamentally an expression of our humanity. Art asks the questions without always giving the answers. And questions are sometimes more important than answers because they allow us to see things from a different perspective, to share our humanity, and to change our world.
Literature is the art of using language to express ideas that can create social change. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is considered one of the most influential books of the 19th century, telling the story of slavery on a personal level in such a way that the reader empathizes with their fellow human and recognizes the immorality of slavery. The novel is credited as a catalyst for the Civil War and the end of slavery. The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night make the horrors of the holocaust real and personal, not an abstract idea of something that happened to someone else.
Poetry has also influenced social change. Langston Hughes wrote “Let America be America Again” in 1935. Its searing characterization of the inequality in this country pointedly describes how the land of the free is only freedom for some, and its message reverberates to this day. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was revolutionary in its progressive ideas of a more socially free and tolerant America, including tolerance for people who are gay. And Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” etched into the Statue of Liberty, is being quoted even today as the country struggles with immigration and refugee policy.
Music, particularly protest songs, has a deep impact on the public psyche. Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” are just a few examples of songs that motivate us to be better people. “We Shall Overcome” has become an anthem for social change.
Photography can bring awareness in a way that words alone cannot. The 1972 photograph by AP photographer Nick Ut of the naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing a U.S. napalm attack compelled us to confront the civilian tragedy of the Vietnam war. Photographs of the civil rights movement remind us today of the struggles we should never forget or take for granted.
Film, television, and theatre are also powerful media for social change. The portrayal of minorities and people who are gay as fully developed characters with the same lives, relationships, problems, and happiness that we all feel has helped to show that we are all more alike than we are different. “Will and Grace” was a leading example of this change. Live theatre has the ability to connect with an audience in an intimate and direct way, often causing us to think differently about an issue or to see a new perspective we hadn’t previously considered. Community theatre in particular is a place of inclusiveness and acceptance that provides a means to reach us at a local level, uniting both audience and artist.
Art can also change the artist. Creating art is a way of understanding our own feelings and then helping others to understand us. Each of us has a unique perspective, a unique story, and a myriad of ways to express it. Writing, composing, performing, drawing, painting—the list of art forms is long and varied. Regardless of our self-doubts and hesitation to express ourselves, each of us has the capacity to create art.
Collaborative art-making can bring us together. Singing in a choir, blending voices in harmony to create something beautiful connects the singers and brings them closer together. I sing with the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, a community choir with a diverse background and differing political and social views, but we share a common love for music and expression in this art form. We leave those differences aside as we come together to create music, sharing that human experience not only with ourselves, but with our audience. And with that comes understanding, tolerance and acceptance.
Art can help us deal with today’s daily barrage of divisiveness and polarizing rhetoric. Literature, poetry, music, visual art, and theatre can help us understand our own feelings and the feelings of others. Creating art, individually or with a group, can be therapeutic and enlightening. Art inspires dialogue that leads to changes in attitude, better understanding, and more compassionate empathy. There are many local organizations and places that would welcome you. Find something that speaks to you, and share your art through patronage and participation. Work to stay in touch with your own humanity to better help you see the humanity in others. Through art you can be an agent for change.