Shelley claimed that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Plato thought they were so dangerous to public order that he expelled them from the Republic. Artists seem to have an important but slippery role in shaping political change: to drive the collective imaginary to explore possible futures; to call things by their names, even when that’s confrontational or transgressive; to be awkward about the conflicts between how things are presented and how they actually are.
However, the role of the artist can’t be purely critical, some kind of sarcastic (because impotent) running commentary on the disposition of power; a creative response self-evidently involves building something that wasn’t there before. Nor is it managerial; to respond artistically is, in general, to open a space of possibility rather than make policy proposals. So it’s also problematic: a “creative response” to a political situation may fall some way short of actual politics. It’s much safer for global elites if potentially fractious, self-willed, highly educated and motivated people are diverted by making radical artistic gestures instead of organizing to take power.
So while artists and writers and musicians have a subtle but potentially powerful role in shaping change, it’s chaotic and not always positive. We may or may not be what Shelley called “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” but we should beware, in case we mistake casting shadows for action.
ALSO IN THIS FORUM
Antonino D'Ambrosio: “How the Creative Response of Artists and Activists Can Transform the World”
Staceyann Chin: “Resistance Through Poetry”
Billy Bragg: “Jail Guitar Doors”
Yetta Kurland: “The Creative Electoral Response”
DJ Spooky: “Reflections on Mortality From a Land of Ice and Snow”
Stanislao G. Pugliese: “How the Study of History Can Contribute to Global Citizenship”
Edwidge Danticat: “Homage to a Creative Elder”