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6 writers on why we need art now

An Evening With Toni Morrison Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

It’s Saturday, and usually that means I round up all of the week’s best writing about books and related topics for you. But this is an odd week for thinking about books: As much of the country reels in the wake of an extremely contentious presidential election, it can feel pointless at best, and actively destructive at worst, like fiddling while Rome burns.

So I’m going to use this space to collect some thoughts from writers about why art is important, and why it’s especially important now, when so much feels so uncertain and so dangerous to so many. We need art more than ever, and here’s why.

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I want to remind us all that art is dangerous. I want to remind you of the history of artists who have been murdered, slaughtered, imprisoned, chopped up, refused entrance. The history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans.

And those people are artists. They’re the ones that sing the truth. And that is something that society has got to protect. But when you enter that field, no matter whether that’s Sonia’s poetry or Ta-Nehisi’s rather startlingly clear prose, it’s a dangerous pursuit. Somebody’s out to get you. You have to know it before you start, and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do.

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

What makes the humanities absolutely necessary is, if you’re not a metaphysical and a spiritual person, you can use the word soul in a secular way, right? The humanities is the only set of traditions — and the arts, the humanities understood broadly — is the only set of traditions that we have that educates the soul.

Nothing else does so. You can take all the engineering and computer classes you want, but I can tell you that what consistently helps us understand what it means to be human, and offers us spaces where we can contemplate the improvement of that condition, has always been the humanities and the arts. And so therefore it’s absolutely essential.

The creative impulse is such a fragile thing, but we have to create now. We owe it to ourselves to do the work. I want to encourage you. If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can. If you have friends, as I do, who tacitly believe that it’s too much of a chore to read a book, just one fucking book, from start to finish, smash every LCD they own. This is an opportunity. There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay.

My position is that serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity. Not to indict. I don’t see how art can be called art if its purpose is to frustrate humanity. To make humanity uncomfortable, yes. But intrinsically to be against humanity, that I don’t take. This is why I find racism impossible, because this is against humanity. Some people think, Well, what he’s saying is we must praise his people. For God’s sake! Go and read my books. I don’t praise my people. I am their greatest critic. … Art should be on the side of humanity. I think it was Yevtushenko talking about Rimbaud, the Frenchman who went to Ethiopia and came back with all kinds of diseases. Yevtushenko said of him that a poet cannot become a slave trader. When Rimbaud became a slave trader, he stopped writing poetry. Poetry and slave trading cannot be bedfellows. That’s where I stand.

As long as we have presidents who lie to us — who use language as irresponsibly as President Reagan uses it — we’ll be political just by using language clearly. But I’m getting tired of blaming Reagan for being Reagan; the American people have to take responsibility for this man — they wanted him; they wanted him twice. He is never held accountable. … Do Americans simply forget what the man’s first, terrible instincts were? They do appear to forget what he, literally, said. This is very troubling to writers; we couldn’t have a president as irresponsible as this if the American people paid attention to language. The news is: language doesn’t matter. But writers make language matter; we describe exactly. You see? Even caring about language becomes “political.”

Let’s get to work.

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