“If we’re really all about helping the poor, why do we spend so much time talking about art?”
It’s a real question being asked by real people when they’ve hung around Soma a while and listened to us talk about our priorities. I think I know where it comes from. The implication is that art is for people who have the luxury to think about such things: for old ladies in pearls who write checks to foundations, and Millennials in torn jeans living in studio apartments like starving artists with no risk of actual starvation. It’s not for real people who have to live in the real world. If we’re making a big deal out of something as “upper-class” as the art community, does that mean we’re just pretending to care about the poor and oppressed?
Short answer? No. Not even a little bit.
A people’s art is their heart beating out where we can all hear it.
Art isn’t just for the privileged. When you walk through an urban neighborhood and hear the beat of hip-hop pulsing under your feet, you are experiencing the feeling of a people. Not just the words, with their rage and longing, but the music itself, the intense and clever and insistent fullness of it all.
When you pass a workman with his radio blaring an entirely different kind of song, a country song that drips pride and regret and determination, there’s a reason that song is what gets him through his day.
When your Mexican neighbors throw a party, and the cumbia is pumping out a call to dance and forget everything but this beat and this moment, that’s your neighbors’ bone-deep desire to make the most out of today’s joy before it’s gone. Can you feel it? Do you want to?
How do you bridge the gap between rich and poor? Between dark skin and light? Between East and West?
Certainly nothing can take the place of personal relationships. We’ve been talking about that a lot lately. It’s vital to build real relationships with real people, to look them in the eye and listen and really hear. But true understanding takes time and patience and swallowing our pride and hurt, and we’d be foolish to neglect anything that could ease that process.
You want to learn empathy for someone you don’t understand? To get past the intellectual and into their living experience? Absorb their art.
A people’s art is a window into their worldview.
When we lived in Argentina, we used to take all our visitors to the National Cathedral in Buenos Aires, not for any kind of religious experience, but just to look at the paintings that hung around the outer walls. Many Catholic churches have something of the kind, paintings that portray the stations of the cross, the events leading up to Jesus’ death. The ones in this particular cathedral are fascinating. Each portrays Jesus in a position of weakness, almost always being lorded over by “Roman” soldiers who look remarkably Spanish. He is also being helped along his way, usually by women, who all look strong and capable and also terribly sad. “Look at all of the paintings together,” we would tell people. “And once you’ve seen them all, you’ll have a glimpse of how Argentines see themselves and God and the world.” The last thing to notice as you walked a slow circle through the quiet cathedral was that the final painting was Jesus’ burial. There was no resurrection.
You don’t need to parse that. Just let it sit.
A people’s art is a bridge to places outsiders can’t find.
I sit in my living room and open my laptop to be greeted by the pictures of a father in Syria clutching his dead children, of a black man in Minnesota gunned down in front of his girlfriend and her daughter, of Native Americans soaking wet in the freezing cold. I try to wrap my mind around the experiences of these men and women.
I want to untangle the complexities of history and culture that have brought them to the moment they’re living right now, but the task is beyond me. So I pick up books.
I read Between the World and Me and Things Fall Apart and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and I look out through the words, trying to see through the author’s eyes.
I search the names of Syrian artists and see what they’ve made and what they’ve said. It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing with their statements. It’s about stepping into their shoes. And true, it’s only for an hour or maybe two, and then I go back to my white Indianapolis life, but journeys change you if you let them.
This is why we press into the artistic community in our city. Those artists place stepping stones across raging rivers.
Participating in the arts is not just for the rich. It’s not just for people with loads of free time on their hands. It’s not just for the talented or ambitious. It’s for anyone with eyes and ears and hands. It’s for us all.
So what can you do?
Experience art. Lots of art. All kinds of art. Music. Movies. Drawing. Painting. Sculpture. Books. Poems. Dance. Theater. All kinds of artists. Those that are like you and those that aren't. Look. Listen. Read. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and try to really see. Our city is full of art made by people of all ages, races, ethnicities. A lot of it you can experience for free. Get out there. And if your life keeps you at home, thank God for the internet age. Free art for everyone.
Think about art. Think about the art you like. Your music. Your books and movies. The stuff that hangs on your walls. Why do you like it? What does it say about you and your own culture, the way you see the world? As you venture out into new art, do it with your mind open. When you listen to music that you haven’t before, pay attention to what it feels like. When you see a sculpture that jars the senses, think about why it was made. What can you learn about the artist, about the artist's culture, about the truth of the world?
Talk about art. It’s not pretentious try to figure out what other people are seeing in something, to tell them what you see and have a dialogue. Unless you’re only doing it to impress someone, conversations about art are like any conversation. They can help you understand.
Make art. Whatever kind that expresses you and your view the world. I can't tell people what it's like to be African-American. I can't express how being Cuban feels. I can't explain what the world looks like when you're born poor in Texas. But I can talk about what it's like to be a woman. I can give a sense of how the world looks to a child who moves around a lot and has no particular roots. I can find words for my experiences as an immigrant in South America. I have that to offer, so I do. You have something, too. Don’t keep it to yourself.
Support artists. You don't have to love every kind of music or every illustration you see. You don't have to be moved by all the books you read. But when you do see something that opens your eyes, consider that it might do the same for others. Consider how you can spread the understanding that comes through that. Maybe you have money to buy things or support a Kickstarter or donate to an artist. Maybe you don’t have the money, so you spread the word instead. Maybe you wear the t-shirt or give someone a ride to a show or post links on social media.
Is it possible that if you start doing these things, you’ll look stupid? Maybe. Is it possible you’ll make mistakes and get slammed for them? Most likely. The world is full of critics and mockers. No one ever learned a new language or made a new friend or built something that didn’t exist before without risking themselves. Leaping across chasms isn’t for the cowardly. The view on the other side, though? It’s worth it.
That’s why we keep bringing it up at Soma. Risks are easier to take when you aren’t alone. So we lean out, we take in that long drop, and then we grab each others’ hands and jump together.
Image: "Mother and Child," by Angu Walters