Are Artists the ‘Canaries in the Mineshaft’ of our Civilization?

Photo from Newcastle-Emlyn anti-war site.

I‘ve been chatting with good friend Jon Husband about weak signals, and he made the point that although Everybody Knows deep inside that we’re in deep shit, it is only the artists and dreamers who talk about it in ways we can all relate to, transcending our political beliefs and frames of reference. My response to him was:

The segment to watch, as you point out, is always the artists. When I hear the black Toronto poetess saying that we will never interest the people in the ghettos in planting trees as long as they can’t get jobs and as long as they live their lives in fear, and when I read the lyrics of most rap music, I almost cry. The artists are split into urban and rural factions. The rural factions paint and draw lovely, moving natural scenes, which the urban birkenstocks come out to buy because they can’t relate to the urban art. The urban faction has two subfactions: one infatuated by technology (artists and designers with socially responsible underpaid jobs and tiny, environmentally responsible homes with beautifully designed state of the art products), the other by love (many women poets and musicians) or violence (many men poets and musicians). Their compositions are consumed, respectively, by women (urban and rural) and by young angry mostly ignorant disaffected people (urban and rural). Thus, they are all rendered impotent, transient. Irrelevant.

As for the exploding suburbs, there is no art there, and the artists flee as soon as they’re old enough not to be dragged back.

When women poets and musicians start writing and singing about gaia and the end of civilization, and when men poets and musicians start truly raging against the machine (with an inevitable anti-technology and anti-logo bent), then we will know we’re starting to become collectively aware of the inevitable future of our planet and the need for radical change. There’s a trace of this in so-called ‘alternative’ music and art, and in anti-war poetry and photography, but the signal is still so weak it’s almost indiscernible in the overall media noise.

In short, artists are the proverbial ‘canaries in the mineshaft’ of Planet Earth — they will be the first to sense, in large numbers, the looming end of our civilization. They will be the first to fight, and to call the rest of us to arms in defence of our planet, hopefully with some of the success their artistic ancestors had in ending the Vietnam War.

They will be the first to fall. Like Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and so many of the anti-war artists of the 1960s and 1970s who succumbed to suicide, drugs or depression. Casualties of war.

I believe we all have three ways of knowing: (1) rational knowledge, things we deduce or induce from facts, (2) emotional knowledge, things we feel in our bones by observing a million fragments of meaning and from their patterns seeing and sensing the big picture, and (3) instinctive knowledge, things we know intuitively because three million years of evolution has coded into our DNA and taught us things that we have neither the time nor the data to ‘know’ rationally or emotionally. Our education system is designed to make us skeptical of and reticent to display emotional intelligence (Martha Stewart: “Women in business don’t cry my dear”), and to completely renounce and sublimate any intuitive ability that manages to survive our other social conditioning.

Artists, somehow, seem to be partly immune to this conditioning. As a result, they have an ability to perceive and present, while the rest of us, having ‘learned’ to live inside our own minds, can only conceive and represent, a much less sensitive and weaker ability.

It is not surprising, then, that the corporatists tend to prefer hack actors and sports stars over artists to endorse their products. Most sports stars seem content to sell their souls for a dollar — most professional golfers are little more than walking billboards, and most professional race car drivers are billboards on wheels. There are a few actors who have attempted to become spokespeople for progressive causes, and that isn’t a bad thing, though they remain outnumbered by pretty but talentless members of the acting profession who donate their absurd $20M salaries to lunatic cults. And many of the musicians who have become activists and fundraisers for progressive and charitable causes are way over the heads in the political arena, and get sucked in or discredited when they get face-to-face with the media-savvy corporatist machine.

What these actors and musicians should be doing instead is what they do well — convey their message in their art. Actors should be working with writers to finance and produce independent productions with messages that the big risk-averse studios won’t touch. Instead of schlock like The Day After Tomorrow we need films and songs that credibly portray a grim future that in the end human ingenuity cannot avert or rectify — cautionary, well-written stories about The Eve of Destruction. Or stories and songs set in the future or on another world (or even a revisionist story set in the ‘prehistoric’ past) that show us a better way to live, that show us that there is any other way to live, instead of reinforcing the cliches that human nature will always spoil paradise and that heroes with the appropriate technologies will always save us against impossible odds at the last minute — messages that defeat and pacify us.

The arts are very powerful — we relate to them in ways deeper and more visceral than we ever relate to unaccompanied political messages. I would love to discover how much of an impact Eminem’s last-minute video before the 2004 election had on turnout and results (unfortunately the US electoral system is incapable of giving us this information, or even telling us who won).

Film, television and music are the arts that have the largest audience, and the ones we most desperately need to tap, but all of the arts can and must help. Poetry, the art of the carefully chosen word, must find its angry voice again. Photographers must show us the truth the media dare not tell (like the photo above), and show us what we are missing. Artists of all varieties must portray things in strange ways that will allow us to see them as they really are.

Surely the artists of the world must be getting tired of the silent night?

Postscript: From this week’s Nation:

Scooter Libby: A Republican Nursery Rhyme by Calvin Trillin

Scooter Libby told a fib. He
Shouldn’t have told at all.
Though not slimy all the time, he
Has to take the fall.

Permaslimer all-the-timer
Rove has got away.
Naught to plea to, he’s now free to
Slime another day.

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10 Responses to Are Artists the ‘Canaries in the Mineshaft’ of our Civilization?

  1. Meg says:

    That photo is beyond my comprehension. Beyond. As in, I sat and stared at it and couldn’t believe it and cried and… yeah. The thing is, so many Americans see the war through pictures of buff young men in Humvees in their fatigues, looking like Marine recruiting posters. They don’t see the child with limbs blown off in the arms of someone who has no choice but to be where they are in that moment.Well, the US DOES have a choice to be where they are.Your point is brilliantly made. I’m not generally too in touch with my anger in my work, but I have a feeling that levee will break soon.Thanks for another thoughtful and convicting piece.

  2. Indigo says:

    Powerful image. Feeling the costs of the decisions we make is the first step towards responsible decision making. Without a feedback loop, improvement is impossible.That is what is hurting us so much. It is not that a particular art form needs to emerge (more angry poets, for example) but that an intent to listen must be developed in those who might receive the message. We must be willing to look at ourselves, at our choices and their consequences, before there is any hope for responsibility.If we cannot be self-responsible, how can we hold our leaders accountable? I fear that secretly many Americans are feeling that a government that kills innocents to get at one man who snubbed his nose at us DOES represent them. If you project a picture like this up on the wall when you hold a discussion about where they stand, maybe there is a chance to get beneath their pre-decided defensive stance that helps them hide from admitting to their own selfish, childish, irresponsible aggression. People like to wear labels they have no intention of living up to. Art brings the conversation to a different level, one of inescapable truth.Whoever makes it, whatever form it takes, I want to see a public educated to listen.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Meg & Indigo. Indigo, I don’t know how you educate the public to listen. Sometimes, I’m afraid, you have to hit them over the head, so it isn’t easier to just turn away and pretend it will go away. I think artists have an ability to hit people over the head more subtly than politicians, since we don’t trust the latter and tend to invent anti-stories for everything they say. That’s why I am one of the few people who admit to thinking PETA’s and Greenpeace’s tactics make sense — they just don’t let you turn away. If the public one day learns to listen, such tactics will no longer be necessary. But I’m not holding my breath.

  4. zach says:

    I didn’t really get this one so after thinking about it I decided to play “take it out of the abstract.” Two statements jump out. Everybody Knows deep inside that we’re in deep shit The deep shit everybody knows deep inside? Fear of death. the looming end of our civilization. Who cares!? The looming end of our families who most unfortunately are also going to die someday. Yep. So naturally the abstracters think about this. Well that was enough mental masturbation, I’m spent.

  5. here’s a link this weekend from the new yor times which might shed some light on this post from a different perspective; please read it and take from it what finds you. here’s the link :

  6. daniel says:

    Unfortunatelly human species seem to learn by blood. What the horrors of this time is telling us is that you can´t expect to colonialize, exploit, empoverish and isolate peoples without expecting direct consequences (each time it takes less time).I have one concern about too crude images about the war, I am afraid they can suffer the same treatment than the text warnings and awful pictures in cigarettes boxes: denial, more anxiety and compulsive actions, etc. I mean, you will not convice a bigot with those images (they are collateral damage, Hussain was worse, blah blah).> I would love to discover how much of an impact Eminem’s last-minute video before the 2004 election had on turnout and resultsAnyone can tell me what was the video about?. Maybe with the name I can find the lyrics.Thanks

  7. Marty says:

    Since we are assigning blame and saviors in a two dimensional universe, let’s blame parents. Ours, theirs, us, them, me, you and those who aren’t parents.There are “corporatists” who are incredible fathers/mothers/artists/creators and destroyers, visionaries and luminaries.There are artists who destroy others, and those who create incredible logos that mean something becoming iconic.There are marketing people who ignite hope and inspire. I don’t appreciate the finger pointing and placing of people into “good people” “bad people” boxes–or “helpers” “hurters”.We are all in this TOGETHER. We are all ONE. We aren’t Me and Other. Until we get THAT we haven’t a hope. You missed a 4th way of learning: collective unconscious (Jung). We learn through others–experiencing them yes also, feeling them, sharing with them on conscious, subconscious and supra conscious ways. The 5th way of learning is through imagining.Imagine this, “The Them is me and you and we are both teachers and students”. Until each individual accepts responsibility for our own actions/results there is no hope for change–angry artists or not.The way to process anger is to look at the cause of anger, how it comes from fear, then hurt, then our own responsibility/guilt for action and inaction, then love. The last two steps are the ones most people have the hardest time with. Not What’s In It for Me? But What Have I Done? How do I Love?

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Daniel: Mosh is the name of the video. I wrote about it here. The links to the video are at the bottom of the article.Marty: I’m fully supportive of the need for us to start with ourselves in working towards making the world better. My point is that artists need to make the majority of us aware that something needs to be done at all, before that process can start.

  9. Indigo says:

    To me educating people to be attentive is achievable as easily as training them to be analytical & skeptical (e.g. law school training) or to apply any other coginitive framework to how they see themselves within society. Children are naturally inquisitive and willing to learn. They listen and watch naturally. To me the training of a “listening” public is about education that doesn’t kill that natural openess by forcing children into the analytical framework exclusively. Children need to learn both the reason and use intellectual discrimination and to sense the greater gestalt behind what they see. That makes them both artists and the consumers of art. To me that is where the most useful changes can be hoped for. Sad to see art programs being cut and memorization skills for standardized testing growing. That is a movmement in the wrong direction.

  10. Marty says:

    And we are all artists.

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