“There is nothing more truly artistic
than to love others …”
What should artists do when society around them seems to be unraveling?
A few days ago in Louisville, here in my home state of Kentucky, seven people were shot in riots that erupted in protest over the killing of a 26 year old black medical technician, Breonna Taylor. It happened shortly after midnight back on March 13 during a drug raid at her home. She was shot eight times … and no drugs were found in her apartment.
“We’ve learned to fly the air as birds,
We’ve learned to swim the sea as fish
Yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth
as brothers and sisters …”
Martin Luther King Jr
Social distancing, isolation and the economic collapse with 40 million Americans losing their jobs is causing the fabric of our society to rip apart. People’s nerves are on edge. They are anxious and losing patience. And I fear many are using terrible events as an excuse to be angry, not to actually solve anything. We went from the greatest economy on earth to hundreds of thousands of Americans standing on food lines … in two months. Our world is changing before our very eyes.
It seems every generation has their “standing on the precipice of disaster” moment.
In 1865 the country was ripped apart in civil war, hundreds of thousands of young men killed in battle and the President was shot. It seemed so horrible, unrecoverable.
But it did.
In 1918 we were ravaged by World War 1 and over 20 million people died in a global bloodbath followed by an epidemic of the Spanish flu, killing another 20 million. It seemed unrecoverable.
But it did.
World War, Korea, Vietnam, Watergate, Aids, 9/11 … each time it seemed hopeless. Unrecoverable. We will never laugh and sing again …
But we did. Each time.
“Music was my refuge.
I could crawl into the space between the notes
and curl my back to loneliness.”
Each time the world looked like it was falling apart, great art and music was created. Darkness makes light powerful, and art is light against the dark stormy clouds of life.
During the Civil War, artists like Henry David Thoreau, Vincent van Gogh and Mark Twain stared a world covered in a blanket of evil straight in the eyes and created some of mankind’s most beloved works.
During WW1, George Gershwin envisioned an opera about black people at a time of great prejudice. The opera was a disaster, but Porgy & Bess led by the aria Summertime has become one of the most revered operas in America.
During WW2 a scrappy, eternally unemployed fellow from Oklahoma wrote a simple song that is still being sung by millions, as Woody Guthrie turned the disaster of war and climate change into brilliant art.
Art is born of isolation, it is that quiet silence that creates the biggest, boldest and loudest noise. We are in a moment of isolation, a moment of history that is not on the precipice of disaster … but of great art. Brilliant music. Powerful poetry and literary greatness._
I guess it all comes down to perspective. We are not falling off the cliff, we are standing on the edge of greatness, ready to fly across a dark canyon into the arms of brilliant sunlight.
That is the role of artists, known and unknown.
“A few chords strummed on a ukulele
does more good in this world
than the combined efforts
of every politician that ever lived.”
Frank Littig, written shortly after WW1
George Gershwin couldn’t bring 40 million lost souls back to life after WW1, he couldn’t cure the ravages of the Spanish Influenza … but he did create an opportunity that gave voice to black artists with an opera that nobody liked. At the time, anyway.
“Let’s turn the clock back to when
people lived in small towns
and took care of each other.”
You do that with great art, not by trying to be a ‘”star.” You do that with good work, not with a big ego. You do that with humility, hard work and willingness to be ignored.
Henry’s simple journals became the book “Walden” … and changed literary history forever. He didn’t write it for the fame. Or money. Or glory. He wrote it because he loved to write and had something important to say. He didn’t know it would change the world while the world was still reeling from civil war.
“To affect the quality of the day,
that is the highest of arts.”
Henry David Thoreau
Stay safe. Stay busy … and wash your hands after every song 🙂