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I remember taking a walk once with singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, and being fascinated by people’s interactions with him. One after another, they approached him with tear-filled eyes, explaining that one album or another of his had “saved my life.” I witnessed this at least half-a-dozen times in the hour we spent together.
We’ve all heard the expression of art being “life-changing” or “life-saving,” but those testimonials made it real for me. These lives were actually changed by his music.
That same transformational power has also galvanized individuals into communities. Protest songs in the era of Guthrie and Baez are studies in raising collective voices as social action. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was a spiritual call to arms for anyone with a record player and a desire to go within. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was a shared meditation on social consciousness for the 70s.
Picasso - Guernica
While much art tends to be retrospective, some of it moves fast enough to be in the conversation with its subject. Picasso’s landmark painting Guernica, which depicts the 1937 bombing of a Spanish village by Nazi and Italian fascist forces, was finished a mere 35 days after the attack. Upon completion, the painting was promptly put on exhibition and not only helped to console the Spanish people but served as a catalyst for bringing worldwide attention to the conflict. In this way, Picasso became a “war photographer” bearing witness to the atrocities on behalf of the lives taken.
In the 1960s, against a backdrop of government suppression, Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilbert Gil joined forces with playwrights, poets, and other artists to create the “Tropicalismo” movement. The art became such a powerful tool for galvanizing the pro-democracy movement that the government created an agency specifically to censor the music and exile the musicians.
The Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song “Ohio” was written by Neil Young in response to four students being shot to death by the National Guard at Kent State University. The shooting happened on May 4, 1970, and “Ohio” was recorded on May 21—just two weeks later—and rushed to radio. I like to think of those musicians as an extension of the tradition of the West African Griot—an amalgam of musician, historian, and storyteller.
In the past, we measured artistic response time in days or weeks, but today we see ideas, images, words, and video move around the world in minutes, or even seconds. Technology has turned access and distribution on its head. Anyone with a phone has access to distribution that eclipses the reach of the biggest media outlets of the 20th century.
Today cultural commentary can come from anyone—musicians, podcasters, graphic artists—and amateur and pro distinctions no longer exist. You just need to be insightful, nimble, and sharable. And of course virality is the name of the game.
Bansky - Tony Cenicola, The New York Times Building
Think of the artist Bansky, whose elaborate works seem to appear overnight, and are shared via social media to millions where they push and challenge ongoing cultural and political conversation.
Or check out Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything podcast. His fanciful storytelling explores current cultural topics from a vantage point that the news cannot access.
Childish Gambino’s recent video This Is America is a powerful and timely commentary on gun violence against the juxtapositions of race, culture, and social expectations. The video in many ways embodies the collision of multiple socio-political narratives as they fight for dominance in mainstream culture.
Shepard Fairey, of Obey fame, recently drew 6,000 people on opening night to his recent L.A. exhibition, “Damaged.” When was the last time a contemporary visual artist has drawn concert-sized crowds? Shepard lives right on that political/cultural fault line where the conversation is so vital that people will gladly spend hours waiting in line to be a part of it.
It’s a great time to be a creator—access to distribution (millions of eyes and ears) has never been easier. If your driving force is affecting lives with your creative output, now is the time. Given the pace of technology today, if you want to be in the conversation you need to move fast—faster than ever before—or risk being a scribe of history rather than a participant in shaping it. As Bertolt Brecht famously said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”