Choose sides in the war against imagination (The need for revolutionary art)

by Adam

Mickey Z.

“True artists are prophets.”

Yoko Ono

The folks at the Fair Share of the Common Heritage website envision every sentient being—human and non-human—fairly and peacefully sharing the planet’s gifts. Besides the physical environment, this also “includes the inventions, knowledge and cultural contributions created by previous generations.”

Clearly, all manner of art fit securely within the realm of this vision…especially those forms of expression that open minds, shatter illusions, provoke independent thought, and challenge prevailing trends. I like to think of such art as revolutionary climate change and indeed, we need an atmosphere of resistance.

Percy Shelley called artists the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” while William Burroughs declared them to be the “real architects of change.” Thus, to ensure the safety of our common heritage, perhaps today’s architects and legislators can draw some inspiration from the artists of the past.

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“Good music is very close to primitive language.”

Denis Diderot

Sitting here in the age of Justin Bieber and American Idol, we might want to recall a song called “Strange Fruit.” It began as a poem—written in the 1930s by a schoolteacher from the Bronx by the name of Abel Meeropol, inspired by a photograph of a lynching.

Under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan,” Meeropol set the poem to music and saw it first performed at a teachers’ union meeting. When Barney Josephson the manager of Cafe Society, a popular, desegregated Greenwich Village nightclub, heard “Strange Fruit,” he arranged a meeting between Meeropol and a singer by the name of Billie Holiday.

After some initial hesitation, Lady Day wanted to record the song but her record label refused. Her persistence landed the song on a specialty label and Holiday began performing it regularly in live shows in 1939. Her passionate interpretation of “Strange Fruit” introduced white audiences to powerful images of racism, inequality, institutionl violence, and hate crimes…images that suddenly became impossible to ignore.

Not long after Holiday introduced “Strange Fruit,” the Kansas city-born Charlie “Bird” Parker helped usher in a sonic revolution in mid-1940s New York City. Labeled “bebop,” Bird’s style built on earlier innovations by players like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Armed with radical musical vocabulary and style, Parker teamed with legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis…making Harlem the jazz capital of the world and changing music forever.

One could describe Parker’s sound as fast, for certain. One could explain that bebop introduced rhythmically asymmetrical improvisations and a new tonal vocabulary. One could also talk about the use of 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords or rapidly implied passing chords.

For the intuitive Bird, however, it was “just music.” He said all was doing was “playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.”

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“I am interested in ideas, not merely in visual products.”

Marcel Duchamp

Not playing clean at that time was the New York School of Action painters. When Jackson Pollock dripped his way into the pages of Life Magazine, Willem De Kooning put it simply: “He broke the ice.” Therein lies the rebellion.

Pollock and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries painted what they felt with little concern for rules or conventions or critical understanding. When one critic wrote that Pollock’s paintings lacked a beginning or an end, the painter replied, “He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.”

Another contemporary of Pollock’s was Marlon Brando and when he stepped onto the stage in his white undershirt in 1947, he revolutionized American acting.

“He burst onto our consciousness wearing a torn T-shirt, mumbling, growling, scowling, screaming for ‘Stel-la!’ as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, first on Broadway, then on film,” wrote Lawrence Grobel in his book Conversations with Brando. “From the beginning, Brando unleashed a raw power that had never been seen before on the screen.”

Or, as Jack Nicholson once said of Brando: “He gave us our freedom.”

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“Rock ‘n roll was revolutionary for me. Songs were weapons.”

Patti Smith

The freedom Nicholson mentions above is not only revolutionary, it’s threatening to some. That McCarthyism appeared shortly after the above-mentioned artistic breakthroughs is no coincidence.

That box-office-ism is rampant today is, in no small part, a reactionary response to the artistic revolutions spawned from the early 1960s to the late 1970s: from New Wave cinema to Pop Art to music like punk, hip hop, and of course, rock and roll.

“I wanted to be like Paul Revere,” Patti Smith told Burroughs in 1979. “That was my whole thing I wanted to be like Paul Revere. I didn’t want to be a giant big hero; I didn’t want to die for the cause. I didn’t want to be a martyr. All that I wanted was for the people to fuckin’ wake up.”

If it’s difficult for you to reconcile Patti Smith’s revolutionary rhetoric with today’s corporate-friendly muzak, well, so it is for Smith herself.

“That rock ‘n roll has evolved into something else is everybody’s fault,” she says. “We all have to take responsibility. You can’t say ‘I had to do that, because the marketing people said to’. It’s the artists’ fault. It’s MTV’s fault. We’re all guilty of forgetting what a great and powerful weapon rock ‘n roll is.”

For those of you who might think “weapon” is too strong a word to describe an art form, consider the words legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie has scrawled on his guitar:

THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS

Or, as modern-day folk singer Ani DiFranco sez: “I sing sometimes for the war I fight/’Cause every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

Grab a weapon, grab a tool, grab something and get busy…

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“If we lived in a time of peace and harmony, then creating pretty, escapist, seratonin-boosting hits of mild amusement wouldn’t be a crime (except perhaps against one’s Muse) … But in times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable.”

Stephanie McMillan

To those of you who’ve made it this far, I’ll end by urging you to…

Beat your drum with the urgency of CPR compressions seeking revival

Rap to the rhythm of a cultural crossover dribble

Seize the stage to turn farce into drama and drama into farce

Sing a song that echoes like the warning cry of a blue whale pursued by harpoons

Bring your colors off the canvas like a prizefighter rising before the referee’s count

Allow your camera’s eye to expose more than meets the eye

Make your guitar strings screech louder than the howls that reverberate through the hallways of a vivisection lab

Write entire novels on subway walls, spray radical graffiti down corporate halls

Choreograph a dance to be performed upon capitalism’s grave

Tap into the collective consciousness and explore the universal energy

All of you—prophets, unacknowledged legislators, architects of change

All of you—needed now more than ever

All of you—a radical army of activists, of freedom fighters, of artists

Raise your weapons; raise a fist to revolutionary art…because it’s never too late

 

Mickey Z. is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Darker Shade of Green. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on an obscure website called Facebook.