I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed and urgent. There are refugees and crises and rights and marches; there are proclamations and orders and lawsuits and commentators on the Sunday mornings. My feeds are an avalanche of information that is all important, but so much so that I feel as though there are fires all around. As soon as I build resolve and focus to write a letter to protest a nomination for Secretary of Education I turn around and feel the call to protect colleagues of science working at our National Park Service, followed only hours later by being riveted to my screen following retention of travelers from abroad followed by protests followed by lawsuits followed by us figuring out what amount we can give to the ACLU. All the while, I’m incensed by someone idling their diesel pickup in the parking lot. Truly, I feel as though there’s some campaign to continually distract me, us, until I can no longer keep up with the pace and could no longer possibly recover from the whiplash.
This, I’ve decided, is why, more than ever, we need art.
I’m not talking about art to serve a purpose of making more posters for the sit-ins that are surely going to take place. I am not referring to hand knit hats for marchers. I am not calling for Bob Dylan to re-invent protest songs (though A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall and The Times They Are a Changin’ are ringing in my head). These will all come and these will all help, but I’m not asking the artists to create the pavement for our marches nor the rhymes of the chants.
Instead, we need artists, all of us, to create the impractical, the beautiful, the collective wonder of what makes us human. We need to remember what this is, and we need particularly to know that we can craft it collectively.
Here’s an example. Ben Folds is accompanying a youth orchestra, which in and of itself is beauty: a middle-aged musician with the same smart-assed tongue as a teen, playing along with teens on the mature instruments like cello and French horn. There’s a tradition at a Ben Folds show in which someone calls out a request for “Rock This B’tch,” and as he explains it that tradition simply started with one semi-heckling fan, and that turned into a challenge at practically all subsequent shows. Whenever called out, he improvises a song with that title, totally on the spot, and totally brand new, live and without a net. So on this night, someone calls out the request with Ben and 100+ teens and their proper symphony and in their proper concert hall. What does he do?
He makes art. No, correction: They, Ben Folds and the 100 youth and the conductor and the audience, make something right then and there that had never been made before. It was in that span of 10 minutes, stripped of any and all pretense and without any plan B. And it was beautiful.
To me, the beauty is in the creating. Because, frankly, if we can create this, together, in the span of 10 minutes, we can do anything. We can organize marches and we can protest injustice. We can write symphonies and constitutions, we can find solutions to problems like climate and energy. But we have to practice, and we have to show that we are in this together. And, maybe most of all, we have to show and continue to practice that we have the human capacity to make something, to be something that is bigger than the sum of our parts.
We are distracted and we will continue to be distracted, but we need the focus of art to remind us of why we’re here. So painters, use all the colors on the palette. Dancers, bend your knees, extend and contract. Writers, sharpen your pencils and tell our stories. Musicians, listen to one another and then rock this hall or turn it up to 11, as they say. And from all this we will continue to learn and to be reminded that there is something we are all working for, and we have the capacity to do it. We have to believe this. I have to believe this. What else is there?