The responsibility of the artist

While the treason of the artist is to elevate pain from a commonplace part of our lives into something that seems unique and therefore exalted, the responsibility of the artist is to create a common culture for the people of the time. The true artist sidesteps out the shackles of propaganda and rhetoric and presents material in such a way as it can become a basis, or common touchstone, of conversation and deeper inspection.

The artist, by dealing in color or other forms, can grasp what the most slippery of our genetic makeup have coated in ooze, and can cast a light on topics that would otherwise fall into the abyss of obfuscation.

Artists complain, maybe not overtly all the time. Their clay is that very item we would accuse them of treason for examining, compulsively rolling it over and over in their fingers. Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Dolatov all shone an unforgiving light onto their surroundings, contrasted what was actually happening with what “should” have been, lamented that the enormous potential they saw in the world would never be reached, but instead was cruelly and forever snatched away.

This occurred to me as I thumbed through a book I should not have purchased, a book about the thousand places I should visit before I die. I happened to land on the chapter entitled Aleppo, and I wondered what was it that I should see there? And was it still there to be seen? Or, was it gone forever, so that my eyes would never gaze upon this great treasure? It was the Aleppo Souq, a market located in the heart of the ancient part of the city. The Al-Madina Souq has been a World Heritage Site since 1986 and yes, much of it has been destroyed. When? Four years ago.

No one I know mourned its loss. No one I know knew anything about it. In our great collective ignorance, the Al-Madina Souq will not be missed.

And so the answer is no, I will never see it. I will never wander through the caverns and smell the spices and feel the silk. Something so special as to be a World Heritage Site has been destroyed by people I don’t know, fighting a war I don’t understand, in a country I have never been, and the unknowns continue on and on and on.

And even though I grew up during the Cold War with nuclear annihilation an imminent threat that I was taught to protect myself from by falling to the floor and covering my head with my hands, it was not until recently that I even came close to grasping the reality of that threat. It was not until a few days ago that it struck me that between the U.S. and Russia, there are 14,000 nuclear warheads and that these are even more powerful that the bombs my country dropped to end World War II. And I am suddenly sickened and ill from the thought. And these ballistic missiles have a reach of over 3,000 miles and can arrive at their destinations in 30 minutes—faster than a plane can fly. Three thousand miles is further than the trip I took across the U.S. when I was 25. Three thousand miles in thirty minutes to kill people I don’t know and have nothing against, most of whom I would probably enjoy meeting, many of whom are funny and charming and smart.

And we could potentially go through this little exercise of package delivery 14,000 times.

I do not hate the people of Russia. Quite the contrary. They are wonderful people. And I would say that they do not hate Americans. And yet, the propaganda machine is currently spinning and spinning trying to make two strangers hate each other.

Trying to make us want to kill each other. Teasing us and goading us like abused dogs that will be set to fighting while onlookers make bets on who will win. Why not let the masters fight and let the dogs run free?

The great American comedian, George Carlin, may he rest in peace, said that Americans are idiots. He said that all you had to do was look at this beautiful country we live in and see what we’ve done to it, how we’ve turned into one big shopping mall, to know that it was true. And I think of the place near my home that is called Swan Island, and how no swan is there, quite the contrary.

Carlin, in a burst of machismo, said he wasn’t emotionally attached. He had decided to be a spectator—only, to watch the big freak show go by, and to point and jeer. He said we Americans have the biggest and the best freak show on Earth.

Entrepreneurs and scientists will take you to Mars, but artists, our place is on Earth. We need to comment in the ways that come best to us, whether it is to point and jeer, or write, or sing, or paint, or sculpt, or make videos, or take pictures, or to fill coffee creamer cups with random hues of paint. We need to perform like it’s our swan song, because this time, sooner than we all surmise, it surely is.

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