There’s a verse in a W.H. Auden poem that goes, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” The poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” is a eulogy to a friend, but the above verse is often used to challenge the idea of poetry (and art more generally) making any sort of tangible change in society. While it’s not fair to take the verse out of context and say this was Auden’s intention, if we consider it at face value—I certainly have been in light of our current political anxieties—we artists get anxious: is writing a poem or carving a linoleum block the best way to spend our time? Can art really be a hammer that shapes reality (society) rather than a mirror that reflects, as Bertolt Brecht said?
Before defending a life of poetry and art, I have to include that in light of climate change, materialism and sweatshop manufacturing, often it’s better to make “nothing” happen: it’s better to sit at a writing desk or read a book than to spend your paycheck at a department store, or fly 1,000 miles to go on vacation. Enough on that (for today).
But it’s painfully clear that the time is now for everyone to step up and make something happen in our world in crisis. In Artists in Time of War, historian and activist Howard Zinn reminds us: “In addition to creating works of art, the artist is also a citizen and a human being.”
Zinn also reminds us that the artist transcends the immediate: “Transcends the madness of the world. Transcends terrorism and war […] The artist [shows] us what is possible.”
Here are seven things an artist (or anyone) can do, to help others see what is possible:
1. Help paint a wall mural in your city. Public art can celebrate local culture, foster community and share stories. Check out Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia to see the possibilities. https://www.muralarts.org
2. Organize a writing workshop. Warrior Writers, a writing workshop for veterans, offers a tried and tested model on how to do it and make it sustainable. http://www.warriorwriters.org
3. Help out with an afterschool art or reading program for kids. Check out Treehouse Books, another successful program in Philadelphia. http://www.treehousebooks.org Also, see the Braddock Carnegie Library’s art program, near Pittsburgh, PA. http://www.braddockcarnegielibrary.org/programs
4. Host a concert with local musicians to support your cause. Nothing fancy. DIY works for any budget.
5. Wheatpaste! For the more radically-minded. The recipe is easy to find. Choose a public wall and glue up a poster for your cause.
6. Start an Art Hive. These are low-cost community art studios for everyone, regardless of age or skills. http://arthives.org
7. Donate to an arts organization. Aside from monetary support, some may also accept supplies or volunteer-time. I promise that no nonprofit arts organization will turn you down.
Poetry and art has done much for me personally. I’m not sure where I’d be currently without the veteran’s artist community of which I am a part. It has shaped my life for at least the past 4 years. Our community keeps me optimistic in uncertain times. It gives me a voice—and nourishes me as I help give voice to others.
Howard Zinn: “It is the job of the artist to […] think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things no one else will say.”
As we go forward, we must have the courage to say what so many won’t want to hear. Poetry and art can help us talk about these issues and envision a new way. It can make something happen.
Artists in Times of War (Seven Stories Press, 2003) by Howard Zin