Lately I have been thinking about what it means to be an artist, and what kinds of responsibilities an artist has to this world in which we live. I have been unable to write for months now, which means I have had a lot of time for thinking. I haven’t eaten. I haven’t slept. I cannot, not with everything I love being destroyed while I lay like a plank in my own bed. Sometimes it seems I may never eat or sleep again.
During all this time I have not been writing or sleeping, I have been teaching Creative Nonfiction at a semi-elite private university in Texas, where my students are very bright and very young; and mostly white and mostly affluent, and have enrolled in my Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class because — well, I don’t know why actually. They love writing, they say, but it might be more accurate to say they love the idea that they love writing. In reality, writing is hard work, and they complain that I make them do so much of it.
Last semester I taught one class only — “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction”—which met on Tuesday afternoons. We spent September and October talking about facts, about narrative, about evidence and ethics, but then November arrived and because voting is more important than creative nonfiction I insisted that if they missed my class in order to go vote they would be excused. On Election Day, only a few were missing from the circle we had made with our desks. I checked in with those who were present: did you vote yet? did you? Most said yes, they definitely voted—earlier in the day, or during early voting, or they mailed absentee ballots back to the states where they are registered. A handful did not vote at all. One, registered in Florida, said she just wasn’t very excited about either of the candidates. (I regret the ways my face registered the horror with which I reacted to this.) Another, registered in San Antonio, said her vote wouldn’t make any difference anyway. I looked at my watch: 4:15. The polls closed at 7:00. You can make it, I said. Go there. Drive now. My students didn’t understand why I was so worried. They believed in the data, in the arc of history. One said the outcome is certain.
I raced home after class to prepare for guests. I warmed appetizers, opened bottles of wine. Our neighbors arrived with food in their hands. The children raced from room to room — from inside to outside through wide open doors — in a shrieking, tumbling pack. The adults laughed and clinked our glasses together and turned on the television. Nervous laughter rose as one said, It’s early. There’s still New York, said another. We stuffed ourselves with cheese. It was nearly midnight when the children were gathered and returned to their homes. My daughter asked, as I tucked her into bed, whether a woman was President and I said, No, darling. Not yet.
A week later I found myself back in the same classroom with my students, but living in a different world. Or it was the same world, but revealed to us, and we were all different for having seen it as it is. They looked a little gray and unwashed, wrung out or strung out; their eyes were swollen or sunken or bloodshot. They wouldn’t look me in the eye, didn’t meet my gaze. They stared at the floor, slouched low in their seats.
Neat piles of pages were stacked on every desk in our circle — three brave writers had shared their essays about trauma and desire and loss, written before any of us knew what we know now — but my students did not want to workshop; workshopping, one said, is the last thing in the world I want to be doing right now. As if it was completely clear to everyone that art cannot rise to occasions like these.
What do you want to be doing right now? I asked. One shrugged her shoulders. Go back in time, one said. Die, said another. I had not prepared a speech — I had felt too distraught, too much a hunted animal to do anything but rage and grieve — so instead I listened and pretended to be wise and calm. It is hard to find the words, they insisted. One gestured broadly over her head with her hands. There is nothing we can do, she said.
“What are the words you do not yet have?” Audre Lorde asked attendees of the Modern Language Association Convention in 1977. “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
In my life, as in my art, the uncertainties of the world often strike me silent, but I find my voice again by describing things I know. I know, for example, that William Carlos Williams famously said that a poem is a “small (or large) machine made of words.” I love this quote, and I have repeated it often to my students because I think it offers an inroad to thinking about what our words can do when it seems there is nothing to be done. Every semester my students struggle with this idea, that art is not an object but a machine. Some arrive believing — insisting, even — that art exists to communicate “hidden meanings.” I don’t want to disparage my students for thinking this way, because, in fact, they do learn to let go of it. But it does illustrate one of the many drawbacks to coming of age in a culture at war with itself. When daily life is saturated with the devastating spectacle of the so-called real — visualize, for a moment, what reality television has obscured about actual reality — we are asked to pledge allegiance to the appearance of fact, even as we observe its fabrication. Machines don’t have meanings; they have functions, I tell them. It is difficult for them to accept that a painting or poem has no meaning just as a toaster has no meaning, which is not to say they do not perform their work for us. Just as high-speed internet, email, the twenty-four hour news cycle, the three strikes law, the private prison industrial complex, the war on terror, and perhaps more alarmingly, the broadly shared experience of terror also perform their work for us. My students have no memory of a time when the world was not, as one so aptly put it, deeply and profoundly fucked. If the function of saturating our experience with horror is to make us accept this as inevitable, perhaps art, that doorway to the symbolic, can make us see something more.
When I was a much younger woman, for example, long before I began teaching or writing even, I found myself unemployed and trying to recover from a terrible trauma, so I frequently visited the Nelson Atkins museum in Kansas City, which houses one of Monet’s Water Lilies in its permanent collection. For hours I sat in front of the painting, only looking. “We only see what we look at,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing. “To look is an act of choice.” Looking is a form of recognition, a method for contemplation that can approximate a form of prayer. “If we accept that we can see that hill over there,” Berger continues, “we propose that from that hill we can be seen.” Which is not to say, exactly, that as I sat looking at Monet’s Water Lilies, I felt the painting look back at me, but rather that perhaps my looking was not only a meditation on a sublime visual cue, but part of a desire to comprehend the world, and also my place in it, differently.
In this way, the act of making art also begins with looking. When I sat for many hours looking at the Monet, I had not yet found essays. Or, perhaps, essays had not yet found me. Years later, I would discover in essays a way of re-seeing the world in which the world could be changed — in which no ocean was ever just a rising body of water, and no mistake had ever been inevitable, and no bruise was ever just an accident. Not even, I would conclude, the ones I had sometimes worn on my face.
What later unfolded in me for essays began unfolding in me as I sat for hours, looking only at the Monet. All those hours I meditated on the water, the flowers in the water, the clouds reflected in the water, I also looked closer at myself. I saw myself, and all the ways in which I might be a better, stronger person. I had no words yet to describe the person I might be, but it was a version of myself I could not unsee.
In my classroom one week after the Election, my students did not want to think or talk about art because the apocalypse had arrived on our doorstep. There is nothing we can do, one said again. Then what is art for? I asked. This question met their blank faces. What is art for if not precisely this moment? I asked again. Their eyebrows furrowed. This was not the speech they came to hear.
There’s a story I’ve heard Project Row Houses founder and MacArthur Fellow Rick Lowe tell about his evolution as an artist. He began as a painter whose work documented social problems, but one day a high school student came by his studio and asked him why he made work about problems. “We don’t need people showing us what’s happening. We already know what’s happening. If you’re an artist and you’re so creative, why can’t you create a solution?” the student asked. It was an important question. Afterward, Lowe gave up trying to document problems and instead began wrestling with the problems themselves. Along with several other artists, he purchased and renovated twenty-two shotgun-style houses in Houston’s Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods. The work became known as Project Row Houses, which is simultaneously a residential program for young mothers, an education program for their children, a residency program for artists, a historic preservation program for the neighborhood, and a work of art.
It’s this last statement that’s a point of some contention. Is it activism or is it art? Is it protest or performance? Am I making art or making a point? “Real” art, we are told, must be commodifiable to have value. “Political art,” on the other hand, is a small, stigmatized domain, a ghetto for the radical few.
But the art that has shaped and continues to shape my trajectory as an artist proves this untrue: William Kentridge’s 9 Drawings for Projection, a series of charcoal animations protesting South African apartheid, which I watched in a poetic forms class in graduate school even as I was learning that “racism” was a term that also implicated me. Or El Año En Que Nací, a recent work of documentary theatre in which eleven artists born during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile take the stage to reckon with the crimes of the generation before, alternately implicating and exonerating their very own parents, and revealing the ways that history and memory can be remade, old divisions can be redrawn or, sometimes — and only with great patience and generosity — erased. There is also The Way Black Machine, an installation of flickering monitors which acts as an archive of footage of both traditional media and social media coverage of the events at that time still freshly unfolding in Ferguson. There are the series of public die-ins that were staged across the country by medical students, clergy members, lawyers, and even university presidents, all in solidarity with the protests against police brutality across the country.
Critics call these works “disturbing” and disparage their status as art, but I think that means they’re working exactly as art should. If these works disturb us it’s because in looking at the work, we see ourselves looking at the work, and doing little else. We watch the events on television unfold in total horror, and then do nothing. We turn off the televisions and go back to our own problems: how will I buy groceries this week? How can I pay the bills? Maybe we’ll go out of our way to post something on Facebook and pat ourselves on the back for it. It’s not enough and we all know it. These works incriminate, indict. They demand that we do more.
Chekov says that art exists to prepare the soul for tenderness, and if this is true, I wonder how it could possibly succeed. I look up from my desk at the news even now as I write this — there is a war, and we have lost it; we are moving toward a future from which there is no escape — and see all the ways in which the world is, without a doubt, “utterly fucked.”
But what I finally told my students one week after the Election — or maybe I’m now telling myself — is that our art has the power to change this, but we must dedicate ourselves to the task of making apparent what our despair has obscured. Where the irrefutable evidence of science has failed, and where the slippery logic and grand rhetoric of public debate fails, and where the cruel and biased vengeance of the judicial system fails and goes on failing, our writing can succeed in unfolding a subtle shift in intellect, a change in perspective, a new way of seeing that is then impossible to unsee.
I know how hopeless things now seem, but we must make art anyway. A few years ago, when Rebecca Solnit came to the campus where I worked at the time, she talked about the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism, she said, is when you believe something good will happen, no matter what. Optimism is blind that way, and maybe even a little bit silly. But hope, she said, is when the odds are stacked against you, when you choose, in spite of these odds, to believe something good can happen. Hope is powerful that way, radical even. She was paraphrasing Vacklav Havel, I think, who spent years in prison as a dissident before he was freed and elected president of the country that had condemned him. “Hope is an orientation of the spirit,” he writes. “It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”
None of this is to say we don’t need beauty. To the contrary: we need beauty now more than ever. But not everything that is beautiful rises to occasions like these. I have, for example, grown impatient with the pristine art of galleries and museums, with auctions and collections and commissions, with curators and prizes and award galas. They operate in a world where beautiful things are made and sold and that transaction is final and enough. But what I have learned about being an artist is that for each of us who makes giant mirrored-steel balloon-animal sculptures that sell for a zillion dollars, there are a thousand more in suburban garages and church basements, in pediatric cancer wards and recovery shelters where nearly every hand shudders with the palsy of addiction, under bridges and on street corners with spray cans, in after school programs and on playgrounds where sometimes a collective hunger unites as a single gut-wrenching wail, and all of them are putting their hands and voices to work each day trying to remake the world.
I have exactly zero hard evidence to prove that any of us will succeed in this. But I know for certain that what art first unfolded for me unfolds in me still, and it’s what leads me to choose, in spite of the odds, to believe that yes, we can put something into the world that is greater than what is being taken from it every damn day of our lives. We can make good things happen. Writing can change us, make us better, stronger, people, whose actions — though they may seem small and inconsequential at the time — can matter, for ourselves and for the world.
My students left class that week, still wrung-out and slouching, and came back slouching the next week, and the next. They watched the news unfolding in total horror and went on feeling there was nothing they could do. And when they did begin writing again, their essays did not rise to the occasion of this particular apocalypse. It was disappointing, I admit. Sometimes young writers come to the page as if there is nothing at stake in the matter, as if they have — or so the expression goes — “no skin in the game.” Maybe they write to impress those they admire, or to belong, or to be seen. Many will never make the kind of art I’m talking about — they would not wish to risk their reputation or privilege, and could not tolerate accusations against their character or craft. Not after working so long and so hard to hone it. They would not wish to displease anyone who might possibly be pleased.
How many tyrannies will they swallow in exactly this way?
“[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage,” Adrienne Rich once wrote in a letter explaining her decision to reject the National Medal of Arts. “In the end,” she continues, “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.”
Nor can we separate art from the power of those who make it, I think. We are not powerless, and the situation — though bleak — is only hopeless if we reject the tools we already have. If there is to be a revolution against this madness, we can write it, build it, lead it into the streets. We may look at the world in despairing horror — as everyone looks — but as artists, we owe it to the world to look again, and to keep looking until we see in ourselves the way the world can be changed. Our art can remind ourselves and others of all the beauty and justice there still can be.
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, activist, and is author of the memoirs The Other Side (Tin House, 2014) andTrespasses (University of Iowa Press, 2012). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Los Angeles Times, Dame, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast, GOOD, and elsewhere. Her third book of nonfiction, The Reckonings, is forthcoming from Scribner. She teaches creative nonfiction in the Low-Residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and at Rice University.