Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What does Art have to do with Revolution?

Do artists contribute to real change? Or are we just "peripheral"? Is art something strange people do in their "spare time", or is it an essential part of human growth and expression? Why would we waste our time adding an arts-element to our rally? Why would we play theater-games in the middle of a meeting?

I don't know who you are, reading this blog, or what your understanding or experience with art has been. Over the years, as an arts-teacher, it's become clear to me that something in the culture has driven a huge block between people and their natural and free expression of self. I have taught kindergarteners who have told me, with a self-resigned sigh, "Oh, I'm not an artist." As if we expect their construction-paper cutouts to look exactly right the first time.

This expectation for instant perfection is disturbing and entirely false. It seems many people think artists are natural geniuses, and call their skills "gifts." As if I didn't have my own trail of crappy refrigerator-drawings flying behind me. As if I don't have hundreds of songs I don't remember and were probably worth forgetting. My heart still thumps whenever I sing in front of people. But I do it anyway. It's where I need to grow. When I was a young adult, I was a terrible introvert. People had to ask me three times to repeat what I said, I was speaking so softly. (It's likely they still didn't catch what I said, but got tired of asking...) Through my art, I pushed the edges of my comfort-zone. Through my performance-work, I made myself get on stage again and again, until I could do it without shaking. Art can help us access pieces of ourselves we didn't know were there. Now, when I have something to say, I say it. I've gotten in front of Occupy-General Assemblies as a facilitator, confidently and with a strong voice. But people don't see those layers of effort, the many moments of embarrassment and self-forgiveness I've worked through, to be able to do what I do.

I see engaging with art, any art, as an essential outlet for being human. It is about pushing the edge of your own growth, and opening space for more of your true self to shine through*. (*see my previous blog, "99 or One", to read more about what being your full wild self has to do with Revolution)... Whether or not the art is "good" is entirely subjective. One person may love it, another may think it's trash. I've found the most important thing is whether or not I learned something in the process creating it.

What does Art have to do with Revolution? Our culture has made "experts" out of everything, including artists. As kids, we saw the adults putting art on a high pedestal, and saying "oh, if it can't be as good as _____(artist), I won't even try." This same passive, resigned tone pervades in our "democracy", when it comes to attempting to change the culture, to change our political system, or even to change the location of a stop-sign on your own block. Everything is untouchable, unreachable. We don't dare dream.

This year, 2012, I see as prime-time for a tremendous expansion of what's possible. Occupy has shaken up the idea that change could come from the top down, from the "expert" government leaders or corporate CEO's. Many of us now think, that in order to change to happen we will have to start it ourselves. Tell me that's not an artist-move. Yes, we will be shaky in our first efforts to organize ourselves, just as we are shaky in our first attempts to create anything new and different. The point is not to be perfect. The point is to express what you dream for, and work to make it happen.

What Art can contribute to the Revolution:
  • An Understanding about the importance of Process. Creating work that I know in advance how it will turn out, to me, is not art-- it's production. It may look pretty, but I know it's actually hollow. To make something that truly speaks to people, I have to be present to the process. In my work, I try to remain open to learning something new. I make mistakes. I wade through the discomfort of not knowing, and keep my eyes open for treasure in unexpected places. I accept what comes. I am willing to work at something, diligently, with nothing but a strong gut sense leading me on. Most of all I listen for the "ding-ding-ding" in my heart, that comes when the piece finally takes over and becomes what it wanted to be all along-- in many cases, despite my original opinions about what it should have been.
As an organizer working on the long-term vision, my dream for this movement is that it will go beyond what any of us are expecting could happen. I hold that dream lightly, and move in each moment with a deep listening for what might help us get there. I think a degree of humbleness and willingness to flow with it will get us further, ultimately, than a step-by-step plan or just the right GA-proposal, or expecting any one of us to have "the answer" to any of the delicious obstacles on the table.

To claim solidarity with people you haven't met and don't really want to interact with, by calling ourselves 99%, is hollow. To build true solidarity, there has to be a willingness to engage with the process, working hard and being willing for the end-result to look different than you thought it should. It might hurt sometimes. You may have to wade through the discomfort of not knowing, and keep your eyes open for treasure in unexpected places.

What if the process of working through the many issues coming up (such as racism, sexism, ageism, differences in religious belief, differences in opinion, right-wing, left-wing...)-- will give us just the tools we need to create our next big project: A New World Order? What if we could use those tools for respectful dialogue across differences, and began building solidarity with people in other countries? What if it were possible, to unite as one planetary people to do something, directly, about ending corporate power and turning toward healing the Earth? You may say I'm a dreamer... but really, what else is going to save us now?
  • Knowing that different projects require different scales of time. Some artists work on a single piece of art, stoically, their entire lives. Others whip out pieces right and left, like Chinese calligraphers. Knowing and embracing the many ways that artists create their work can give us an appreciation for a variety of time-scales in our collective actions. Some actions pop up overnight and are gone tomorrow. Others take months or years or even decades to reach fruition, but are long-lasting and wide-reaching.
Get a sense of the scale of this project: We are called upon, now, to save humanity.
Our ancestors have already saved us, many times over. Indigenous cultures tell us to consider how our actions today will play out 7 generations from now. Another reason why it's important to know our true history, and feel the pain of the past. This is just the medicine we need, to help us know what mistakes we don't want to repeat, and break the cycles of colonization, oppression, and greed.
  • Art is magnetic. It makes people curious. They want to come out and see what you are up to. With the right participatory project, it's contagious... people are drawn in, and as they work, get out of the television-induced passive spectator mindstate-- and into their creative, engaged, active, "Hey, I'm a part of this!!" mind-body-wow state. It's an addictive feeling. They will be back for more.
  • Art is a bridge-builder. In a collaborative-arts project, you can easily find yourself working beside someone you've never met before. A sense of community builds over time, and is created out of small connections like this. Through working on a project together, you might meet one more person, possibly someone very different than you. You might see each other on the street. You might become friends. In my 10 years as a community-artist-activist, I've seen old and young, people from different cultures, people who couldn't even speak the same language, making really cool and complex stuff together. Somehow words weren't even necessary, communicating instead through simple materials and a sense of the whole.
  • Singing or writing or making music or dancing can make your heart feel better. I don't know if we really need any other reason than that.
  • Manifesting something through art can embolden us to manifest other things we desire in our lives. Looking at a tangible creation, we can see, plainly, that something was done. Something happened here. In Portland, there is a wonderful neighborhood-beautification movement called "City Repair". Murals painted on the streets. Mosaic benches. Community gardens. Handmade gathering spaces. In projects like these, you get to live next to the results for years to come. The landscape and feeling of the block changes. Cars slow down. People look at each other and smile. If it's a garden you can taste the results. Seemingly impossible things begin to feel more possible.
(photo of a banner-batik-project at the Occupy Community-Day, a weekly event I helped coordinate, that happened for 2 months over the winter) (*oh yeah... adding art to your actions also makes for colorful photo-ops!)

Because it's related, I'll add a few more points:
What does Play or Improvisation have to do with Revolution?

  • Playing opens up our intuition. Intuition is faster and often more accurate than logical processing. The brain is usually the last to catch up to what's happening. We learn to trust our gut. We keep a channel open to the environment, and re-attune our senses to what's around us. How often has an answer that's been evading you for weeks suddenly spring into mind when your brain has loosened up, and you've let go of trying for a moment?
  • Play is a way to open your mind to the possibilities you may not even have dreamed yet. Play is a way to discover new things. The point is to grow. Things are fun because they challenge us in some way. Human brains are designed to grow. Play keeps the mind plastic and able to learn new things. We enjoy change. Evolution uses gene-pool "play" as a major strategy. Want to talk about "diversity of tactics"? Try looking at all the many variations of flowers out there, advertising for pollinators. Nature looks for something that hasn't been tried before, and will try just about anything. We are at a point in our cultural-turning where we will need all the imagination we can muster, and all the collective intelligence we can tap into.
  • Practicing improvisation trains you be calm and relaxed when unexpected things start happening (which they always will). Improvising as a group sensitizes your awareness and ability to respond to others. There is usually a give-and-take of listening and responding. We are present in the choices we are making. In improvisation, you learn how to listen, to respond, to initiate, to let go. It's a great practice for a "leaderless" movement. As we learn to trade roles in play, so too we can learn to trade roles in organizing.
  • Play develops your sense of humor. Humor is one of the secrets to keeping healthy and aging well. You do intend to grow old in this new world we are building, right?
  • Play can keep us moving through hard topics, lengthy meetings, and prevent burn-out. If we put just a little more "fun" into our meetings, we may be surprised to find we actually get more done. Moving the body is an excellent way to unblock the mind. Egos get set aside when you are asked to do something silly together. Overall attendance may improve, too.

To all my beloved Occupiers who want the Revolution and want it now, I offer these tools of artist-process and the importance of play for your tool-belt. I hope you will take them as gifts that we can all use, as we do this work together.

To the kindergartener who says they can't do art, and to all you grown-ups who say the same, I wish for you a painting or a poem or a piece of music to catch your heart and remind you of something you may have forgotten. May it awaken a desire in you, to say or paint or sing or move, so that your voice, too, can remind us of something we've forgotten.

Peace, Love, and Revolution,


Comments are appreciated!

Next Blog: Collective Intelligence and why Occupy is Wiser than we know...

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