Responding Artistically to Our Times

If I didn't articulate the question before, I certainly can't help asking it now that I've watched Liz Garbus' documentary on Nina Simone (1933-2003), "What Happened, Miss Simone?": What is our role as artists or what is the role of art in responding to the times?

Nina Simone (1965), photo by Ron Kroon/Anefo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Nina Simone (1965), photo by Ron Kroon/Anefo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Legendary singer-songwriter Simone was part of my growing up years in the 1960s. I didn't know then that she was trained as a musical prodigy in segregated Tryon, North Carolina, and aspired to be the first African-American classical pianist. Sadly, the times were against it. At 19, she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but wasn't accepted, and she knew why--her skin color. Because she needed to make money, she wound up singing pop, jazz, and R & B at a club in Atlantic City. She created the stage name Nina Simone rather than use her given name, Eunice Waymon, for fear her preacher mother would find out she was singing "the Devil's music."

Civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Although she never fulfilled her dream, Simone became iconic in another way, celebrated for her signature vocals. When the civil rights movement went into full swing, she responded with unflinching courage. She used her voice and platform to record civil rights-themed songs, such as "Mississippi Goddam," "Baltimore," "To Be Young, Gifted & Black," and "Backlash Blues."

Civil rights protesters on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Civil rights protesters on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Photo by Peter Pettus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

In the film, she talks about being an artist of her times and unhesitatingly states that artists have to respond to the times they live in. They have the power to do something about what's going on in their world. While her political songs inspired, brought together, and heartened people seeking racial equality, that music also cost Simone her successful artistic career in America. She left for Africa, and then spent the rest of her life in Europe, where she eventually made a comeback.

Nina Simone, Morlaix Concert in Bretagne, France (1982). Photo by Roland Godefroy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Nina Simone, Morlaix Concert in Bretagne, France (1982). Photo by Roland Godefroy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

As artists, how do we respond to our times? Simone did it with protest songs. American author Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) did it with muckraking books. For example, in 1906, his classic novel, The Jungle, exposed horrendous conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry and caused a public uproar that, a few months later, helped bring about passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. After the Nazis devastated the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) responded by painting "Guernica." It was exhibited widely and brought world attention to the war in Spain. In his statement read to the American Artists Congress in New York in 1937, he said:

Artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake.

"Guernica" (1937), by Pablo Picasso. Source: http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp

"Guernica" (1937), by Pablo Picasso. Source: http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp

American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) responded to the Great Depression of the 1930s by humanizing the tragic hardship and desperate poverty she witnessed during those years. 

"Migrant Mother" (1936), by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Migrant Mother" (1936), by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (1932). Photo by Karl Von Vechten. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (1932). Photo by Karl
Von Vechten. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Strongly influenced by the Mexican Revolution in 1914/15 and the Russian Revolution in 1917, Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) changed directions from Cubism and Post-Impressionism. He turned to murals depicting the struggles of the working class and native peoples he grew up around as well as the political agendas he favored. His wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), although deeply affected by indigenous Mexican culture, created a body of work in which self-portraits predominated. Clearly, not every artist responds the same way.

There are so many other musicians, painters, sculptors, and writers I could cite from the past. Today there are also countless artists responding to physical and cultural genocide, racism, homelessness, homophobia, xenophobia, women's rights, human trafficking, the global refugee crisis, political repression, cruelty to animals, environmental degradation, extinction of flora and fauna, and so much more. I know some of them and have the seen the work of others.

Part of Diego Rivera's "History of Mexico" mural at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, with images of Emiliano Zapata, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and José Guadalupe Rodríquez behind a banner featuring the Zapatista slogan, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Part of Diego Rivera's "History of Mexico" mural at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, with images
of Emiliano Zapata, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and José Guadalupe Rodríquez behind a banner featuring
the Zapatista slogan, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Still, not every artist is an activist in this obvious way. That doesn't mean artists are not responding to the times they live in. Sometimes, they have their biggest impact obliquely. Rather than depict war scenes, some prefer to paint peaceful landscapes or compose music that conveys a sense of serenity. Rather than portray human cruelty and violence, some prefer to create images of kindness and compassion. An artistic response can also be an abstract expression of our innermost feelings and thoughts rather than blatant pictures of atrocities. There's no formula for responding to our times. But in an age of instantaneous international communication, how can we not know what's happening? Do we feel called artistically to do something about it?

Questions and Comments:
What issues move you to create art that expresses your opinion about them?
If you are not politically inclined to bring attention to an injustice or crisis, how do you respond to the times you live in? 
How do you respond to art that is clearly a protest against some inequity? Does it stimulate you into taking action? Or are you not drawn to it because it horrifies and depresses you?

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