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Socially Conscious Art: Questions to Ask Yourself

Some years ago, Bernice Johnson Reagon visited Wesleyan University and gave a speech. I have been an admirer of hers since I first heard Sweet Honey In the Rock while in college, and I find her to be one of the most compelling proponents of “message music” that is of great artistic substance while being meant to educate and uplift, even when the corresponding issues are thorny and don’t seem to lend themselves to songs. She also has a rich history as a civil rights activist, and when a Q&A opened up at the end, I wanted to know about that. Specifically, I acknowledged her more “direct” forms of activism and asked her how she saw her music fitting into that. The response I got was pithy – essentially this: “well, I’m a singer.” This seemed curt at the time, but the more time passes, the more deep I realize it was.

This post was mostly composed before I heard the news of the bombing in Boston, and I am still wrapping my brain around that. But of this I feel confident (and this will invariably be a post of its own at some point soon): those of us pulled toward activism and positive change of any sort need to use our strengths, resources and passions to that end. Some of us have money, some of us know important people, some of us have strengths in any number of areas that can help make the world better and/or make life easier for suffering individuals (as evidenced by the stories emerging about good Samaritans pitching in yesterday in Boston).

If our strengths are artistic, then a whole world of questions emerges about how to create and present socially conscious art. I find that the answers tend to come fairly organically if the questions are asked thoroughly enough. The questions below should help with this process, and they are culled from a residency on the topic of socially conscious art co-sponsored by Resonant Motion, Inc. and Wesleyan.  I use the term “socially conscious art” here in a very general sense, broadly comprising anything meant to tap into a cause of any sort and to contribute to positive change in that avenue.

* What is your personal connection to the cause?

It could be a matter of general human concern (as Newtown has been for many not directly connected to the bereaved families), a matter of secondary personal concern (adversity striking a person you know or that person passionately taking on a cause for whatever reason) or something that impacts you directly on a day-to-day basis.

The closer your connection to the cause is, the more complicated that makes things; on the one hand that personal connection can lead to a greater potency in the work, and on the other hand it also makes the artist more vulnerable, as disapproval or indifference toward the art can be that much more emotionally difficult.

* What impact do you hope for this work to have?

All art is, one would like to think, about expressing oneself, so that is no different here. As I told the students in no uncertain terms, insincere art is pretty well useless on any level. We can envy those who are genuinely into things that are also highly commercial (take a bow, Katy Perry) but if we’re not genuinely into it, it will ring false and have neither commercial nor artistic success. The same is largely true for involvement in a social cause – being realistic about what inspires you is important, and if the inspiration is tepid but you still want to be involved, there are countless variations on how to do that.

So aside from expressing yourself, are you instituting a call to action? This certainly was the most compelling motivation for the Wesleyan students in this workshop. Are you trying to comfort people or inspire them or make them angry? Are you trying to entertain them or challenge them? Is raising money a primary goal, and if so, do you need to alter the presentation of the art to make it more palatable?

Any of these conclusions are legitimate, but you want to have at least some sense of your intended impact so you can choose a mode of creation and presentation consistent with that. For example, we had an interesting debate over the relative merits of art for which fundraising is the only visible connection to the cause (citing, as an example, Madonna gyrating to “Like A Virgin” at Live Aid). Whether the pure financial benefit outweighs the incongruity (or, indeed, whether purely throwing money at a cause is worthwhile) is a subject open to plenty more debate.

* Who is your intended audience?

This is ultimately a variation on the question above, but it is important to consider this, particularly with regards to that audiences existing relationship with the cause in question. On a basic level, you could be presenting art to people already into the cause in question, you could be presenting it to people with limited (or no) pre-existing knowledge about this cause or you could even be presenting it to people on the “other side,” who disagree with your views, whether to prod them, to persuade them or simply to be true to your art and viewpoints even if there is a chance of a hostile reaction.

When talking to the students the other night I was reminded of an experience early in my career teaching in higher education. I was teaching a little bit at a college where I was invited to participate in a jazz faculty concert. It was right around the beginning of the Iraq War and I wrote two new tunes for the ensemble, one called “Pre-emptive Peace” and the other called “War Begins With Dubya.” Long story short, it turned out that several of my fellow faculty members had politics 180 degrees removed from mine, so we played the tunes but put a disclaimer to that effect in the program (“the views expressed in these songs do not necessarily reflect . . .”). Colleges tend to be pretty left-leaning, so it was an interesting eye opener to see from the outside what it was like for someone (these other faculty) to be presenting work in an environment with which they were philosophically at odds.

* How do you intend to balance the impact of the art itself vs. context of its presentation?

This is a particularly important thing to consider for folks wishing to use their art in service of social causes even if their particular mode of art-making (say landscape painting or classical flute) does not inherently lend itself to making that direct connection. In general, I see three basic elements to juggle, and it only takes one to make socially conscious art. Element one is the art itself, element two is the setting in which it is presented and element three is the manner in which it is presented. So the art itself could be socially conscious, the setting could be socially conscious (benefit concert, theme-based art exhibit, compilation of protest poetry, etc.) or the “framing” could be socially conscious (e.g. notes or stage patter or the like in which the issue to consider is laid out in words).

The most obvious thing, then, is to have all of these factors in place and create a bombardment of cause-based relevance (going to the “Save the Ferrets” benefit concert with your “save the ferrets” t-shirt and talking about ferrets to introduce your song with 8 verses of lyrics about ferrets) but that is not always possible and it is debatable whether that level of bombardment is the most effective methodology. That is a personal choice based on all the factors above. Playing a Bach cello suite at the same concert may still move people. Reading a poem about ferrets at an all-inclusive and cause-neutral open mic might do the same.

I’ll close with a great question that a student asked: since art has the capacity to move people, is that enough? That is, does wanting to make a positive difference through art require alignment with a cause when the art itself strives for a sort of transcendence that helps people? My answer to him was that anybody doing anything positive is providing a benefit to humankind, so in that sense yes, just making art is enough. Likewise, if you want to be involved in a cause, your art needn’t be the means by which you do that – for all I know, Katy Perry is spending 3 months per year going incognito and secretly building houses for the homeless in Kentucky. It is a personal choice, and it is a matter of degrees as well – Bob Dylan wrote some of the most high-impact cause-based music of the last century . . . and then he started writing about other stuff, because his muse demanded that he do so. If you do want to make socially conscious art, though, the questions above should at least help you construct your own framework.

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