Other decades of unrest brought out artists who used their art to create both empathy and social change. It’s time for that kind of uprising again.
Don’t look now, folks, but the proverbial shit is hitting the fan. Candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric and tacit—arguably overt—endorsement of violence as means of quieting the voices of dissent has reached a boiling point.
Recently, Trump was forced to cancel a rally in Chicago after supporters and protesters clashed in an ugly no-holds-barred battle royal in the arena. This came after a rally in North Carolina where a big ole’ ponytailed man in a cowboy hat took a vicious sucker-punch at a protester.
If these acts of belligerence, and Trump’s presence on the political scene, aren’t enough cause for concern; if they aren’t incendiary enough to get artists—the songwriters and poets, particularly—primed to air their collective voices in the name of peace and reason, nothing will.
I understand that a song or a poem will not make any discernible impression on the hate-train Trump is engineering. I understand that, sadly, we’ve become a nation of philistines, a populous who seems more concerned with the Kardashians than Congress, but this doesn’t mean we’ve grown entirely deaf.
If you examine the 1960s, the most tumultuous decade of civil unrest in recent history, the artist’s stamp is all over it. Bob Dylan and John Lennon were writing songs with teeth. Allen Ginsberg was writing poems that took the establishment to task. Hell, Andy Warhol was creating art that forced people to take longer looks at inanity of popular culture.
And these are just a few obvious names.
Even in the 1990s, Kurt Cobain, although likely unintentionally, passed passive commentary on the state of my generation through his insouciance—“Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”
But where are the voices now when we most need them? Not to pump the panic button, but we’ve reached a level of civil unrest approaching the level of the 1960s. Donald Trump’s mere presence on the political scene is evidence enough.
Admittedly, in the technological era that we inhabit, it is difficult, if not impossible, due to the inundation of media, to isolate the voices of artists. And the artists that seem to top the music scenes are largely narcissistic or entirely vacuous, with few exceptions. And poetry, if we’re going to be honest, has been hijacked by academia and largely rendered arcane and inaccessible to laymen.
Still, the voices of change and protest and honesty are out there, they’re around, and we need to put our ears to the ground and listen for them. They’re not going to sell commodities but they need to speak up. Now.
The reason someone like Donald Trump, with his blistering vitriol, is able to gain traction is rather simple: It’s a lack of collective empathy. Trump fosters baser emotions—rage and hate and bigotry—but there is nothing in his rhetoric that taps empathy. And art is empathy, the ability to see the world through others’ eyes and feel compassion.
Turn on the news, check out the polls, and it is quite clear the shit is hitting fan in the United States, but trading punches with the supporters of a hate-monger is no way of going about airing our frustrations and concerns.
I like to believe the old proverb remains true: The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword.
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