The Artist’s Role

by Dan Simpson

My partner, Ona Gritz, and I recently attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey.  If you haven’t been there, you should go at least once, even if you don’t think you and poetry have much to do with each other.  In these times when, despite our increasing irritation with lies and negative campaign ads, we can find ourselves turning into political junkies, it’s refreshing to live in a community, albeit an ephemeral one, where introspection, open-heartedness, critical thinking, truth-telling, and meaning are what matter most.

Within that temporary community, though, you will find great difference, great variety, even great disagreement on such questions as what makes a poem, what is the purpose of poetry, and how much difference can poetry make in the “real world.”

One of the perennial questions has to do with the poet’s relationship to politics.  How overtly political should poems be? In one sense, each poem constitutes a kind of political act; to spend time creating and perfecting something that has little or no commercial value in a society run by corporations is a kind of political statement.  But beyond that, what role can or should the poet play in society? In some older societies, poets, like prophets, were revered.  But they also ran the risk of being reviled, should they say something starkly unpopular.

I wondered aloud to Ona about my own stance on all of this during the run-up to the election, as well as during the aftermath, especially if, God forbid, the party promoting unbridled greed and trickle-down humanity should win.  I said that losing out to such an ideology might have the benefit of sending me deeper into creating art, perhaps as a retreat for personal sustainability.  It’s a strategy that served me well when my parents, told there were no better options, sent me and my twin brother to a boarding school for the blind at the ripe age of four.  I learned I could survive, even flourish, by diving into other worlds found in books.  So, by extension, maybe I could make writing my foxhole. Then, again, maybe I should come out firing, doing my best to find words that would knock out malarkey  and mumbo-jumbo with the accuracy of a sniper.

I remember discussing this issue with Ilana Blumberg, a wonderful friend in graduate school.  “What responsibility do art and the artist have for making the world better?” I asked her.  She said, “There’s always the danger that politics will overtake your art if you try to make your art do that much heavy-lifting in the world.  I think if you want to make a political statement, go to a demonstration or organize your own.  If you want to affect change, go do the practical things to make it happen.”

In my previous post, I suggested that blogs have filled a need that letter-writing used to fill.  Maybe they also provide a vehicle for thoughtful writing that doesn’t have to be art.  What do you think about the relationship between art and politics? What do you expect from art, and what are the artist’s responsibilities?