Thinking on creative work in times of real political trouble
November 27, 2016 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Given the election of Donald Trump, I'm conflicted about spending my free time on creative work. I am committed to taking small, regular actions like calling my congressman, or maybe doing a phone bank or two, but I'm inclined to spend my free 40-60 minutes each weekday (I'm a parent with a full-time job) on things I find interesting and not at all related to politics. However, given how dire our situation seems, this seems irresponsible. This issue does seem like the kind of thing that people would have written about at length in the past. Can you point me at that work?

I started thinking about this on Nov. 9, and as I geared up to get a creative coding meetup going, I felt hypocritical that I was wiling to organize for this, but not to prevent the future from becoming total shit-horror.

I'm not looking for essays that necessarily either justify or disprove that I'm spending my free time the right way. I just want to read serious previous thought on this matter, digest it, and hopefully come to some sort of resolution, whatever it may be.

To be clear, I'm not talking about creative work that addresses our problems like the music of Immortal Technique or Napalm Death or games like Papers, Please. The creative work I'm thinking of isn't even tangentially related to our real impending erosion of rights. It's stuff like Zelda-like video games and bots that explore language and concepts. There is not even a tiny chance that the kind of work I'm talking about will move any real political needle.
posted by ignignokt to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Right after the election, I took a walk around an art museum, and looked at all the dates on all the works by all the artists that I loved, thinking about what was going on in the artists worlds during those dates. There is art, like Picasso's Guernica, and Goya's the Third of May, and there works by these same artists during the same times that are more inward rather than outward, still-lives, babies, and so on. You have permission to make what you make. You make what you make because you cannot NOT make it, be it beautiful, horrific, beautiful and horrific, or a welcome frivolity and lightness. We are grateful for it all, lucidity, humor, lightness, gravity.
posted by coevals at 6:11 PM on November 27, 2016 [13 favorites]

There are lots of ways to fight. One of those ways is by being a candle in the darkness. We need moments of light and hope and happiness that aren't a part of the fight so we can remember what we're working to protect.

But also, you'd be surprised how much political subtext you can unpack from a Zelda-style game. That matters, too.
posted by Andrhia at 6:15 PM on November 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Are there Muslim and LGBTQ people in your area? Reach out especially to include them in your creative coding meetup. Hosting a diverse and accepting creative group IS moving the political needle.
posted by xo at 6:33 PM on November 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Thanks, everyone! Suggestions about what I can do are handy, but it'd be especially helpful to be able to find previous written thinking on this matter.
posted by ignignokt at 6:43 PM on November 27, 2016

Is this essay the sort of thing you're looking for?
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:14 PM on November 27, 2016

As a QTPOC who is an activist and is learning how to code, I would be so happy to go to an inclusive creative coding meetup, and be even happier that it was someone ELSE who was organizing it. Creating, safe, diverse, and truly inclusive places that incorporate art, joy, and things that are not always about direct action (but would be cool if it was tied to direct action), where people can be themselves in all of their forms and it'll do a lot of good.

I'm doing a lot of things for myself that isn't directly be honest, maybe I should write that thinkpiece you are looking for haha.
posted by yueliang at 8:40 PM on November 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

I can't find much, but I think this piece is good:

“It’s honorable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do, and you’ll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.”
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:18 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

In his National Book Award speech, Colson Whitehead said, "And I hit upon something that was making me feel better, and I guess it was, I think, hopefully applicable to other folks: Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power. That seemed like a good formula for me, anyway. So B, M, F, and if you have trouble remembering that, a good mnemonic device to tell yourself is, They can't break me because I'm a Bad Mother Fucker."
posted by matildaben at 9:29 PM on November 27, 2016 [14 favorites]

C.S. Lewis has an essay - Learning in War-Time - which addresses this question. Its framework is overtly Christian, but I think a few of its arguments make sense even if you are not a Christian. In particular, I think the following two passages speak to your concern:

1) "Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different.They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature."

2) "we may have a duty to rescue a drowning man, and perhaps, if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn life-saving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to life-saving in the sense of giving it his total attention --so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim -- he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is, then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself. "
posted by Aravis76 at 12:15 AM on November 28, 2016 [23 favorites]

In these trying times, sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we're somehow lacking if we don't give every spare penny to charity, every spare second to good works, do everything we possibly can to fight the good fight.

But if you don't take time for yourself and let yourself relax, that leads to anxiety, depression and compassion fatigue. You have to look away from the burning world and remind yourself that the things you enjoy still exist, and that you can still do these things for you. The election result can't take away your Zelda game, and you have a right to play it in order to keep yourself sane.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 1:23 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was just listening to ep201 ("You have a screaming not a calling") of the Liz Gilbert podcast, Magic Lessons on managing creativity, which you might find really helpful. She talks to a woman who always wanted to be a comedy writer but found her life taking a different path - to the point she did a PhD on the Holocaust. The stress made her ill, but she had a lot of guilt about turning away from that work to do something as frivolous as writing comedy.

There's a lot of discussion about the idea that it's a service to yourself and to the world to do something that fulfils you, whatever that turns out to be. You may or may not end up agreeing, but might give you the food for thought you're looking for.
posted by penguin pie at 2:09 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

"In the late evenings, and during the night I did innumerable drawings in gouache and pencil – all of them abstract, and all them my own way of exploring the particular tensions and relationships of form and colour which were to occupy me in sculpture during the later years of the war. At that time I was reading very extensively and I became concerned as to the true relationship of the artist and society. I remember expecting the major upheaval of war to change my outlook; but it seemed as though the worse the international scene became the more determined and passionate became my desire to find a full expression of the ideas which had germinated before the war broke out, retaining freedom to do so whilst carrying out what was demanded of me as a human being. I do not think this preoccupation with abstract forms was escapism; I see it as a consolidation of faith in living values, and a completely logical way of expressing the intrinsic 'will to live' as opposed to the extrinsic disaster of the world war." - Barbara Hepworth, from Chapter 4: The war, Cornwall, and artist in landscape, 1939–1946, via
posted by Chairboy at 2:16 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

We're in a Long War, not one quick, decisive battle. Our first job is to survive. What nourishes the psyche and spirit makes us stronger, more fit for endurance.
posted by Weftage at 7:20 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

This post immediately made me think of the chapter on ruthlessness (and its necessity for art) in Janna Malamud Smith's An Absorbing Errand. You'll find an adapted version of that chapter here.
posted by xenization at 8:41 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

To be honest, I think there's a fair bit of bullshit to the idea that anyone's artistic work will be a "light in the darkness." It's conveniently serving of an artist's own interests to think that their poetry or music or whatever will make a real difference in a truly dark political situation. Have you really thought about how your creative work could oppose fascism and cruelty? More so than actual volunteering or protest or involvement with local government? If we don't have effective ways of promoting a message through our creative work, then I don't see how it's significantly different from those who say "oh let's just all be kinder" and "time for reconciliation" without any critical thought.

Honestly, if we can't even entertain the idea of "hey, maybe I do have to make a sacrifice, maybe my personal projects are not the most valuable thing for my community right now" then we're screwed, because we'll just keep on fiddling around with art, as long as we can, while money and freedoms slowly drain away, and we won't be ready to jump in and save anyone, because life-guard training takes TIME and EFFORT in advance.
posted by daisystomper at 9:20 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

This piece by Toni Morrison offers some interesting food for thought.
posted by rpfields at 4:34 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Adam Conover has a good quote about this (even if it was written at the height of Pokemon Go mania):
Gentle reminder: Folks can care about important social issues AND frivolous distractions simultaneously. Most do, in fact. It keeps us sane.
posted by O9scar at 10:08 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agreed, trying not go off the point here, but I do think it's important not to slip into making a somewhat arbitrary distinction between 'creative activity' and 'fighting the good fight'. Most of the projects that I am currently working on involve making serious artistic work in and amongst communities (not making community art, which is something else all together) and it's very difficult to disentangle the social benefits and political impact of getting people to talk to each other and take an interest in and a stake in their community from the actual art making. Again, Hepworth puts it better than I can:

"In opposition to 'social realism' I believe that meanings in sculpture emerge more powerfully when they are carried through sculpture's own silent language; and that if the sculptor himself can find personal integration with his surroundings and his community his work will stand a greater chance of developing the poetry which is his free and affirmative contribution to society." - Barbara Hepworth
posted by Chairboy at 10:26 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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