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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Art and Revolution

Pete Seeger just died. He was a true hero of mine and a revolutionary and, as my son Aaron just reminded me, a true revolutionary because a compassionate revolutionary.

The event prompts me to add one more chapter to my little book The Next Revolution. I dealt with Religion and Revolution, Science, Ethics, Economics, Violence and Revolution. What about Art?

Art is the expression of a culture back to the culture. Like science, philosophy, religion, myth, and language itself, it is the search for and impression of meaning--the meaning of the universe, the meaning of humanity, the meaning of us. It takes life to a higher stage. By re-presenting and examining life, it make life worth living. It creates value.

The human capacity, the one that defines us most of all, is the capacity to imagine, to make images and use them to make sense of our surroundings and of us. It is a capacity that cannot be achieved, exercised, or developed alone. It requires our association with others, our ability to get under each other's skin, to agitate one another, to make us not passive spectators or followers but actors and leaders.

Diego Rivera did that with his painting, Albert Camus with his novels, Eugene O'Neill with his drama, Amiri Baraka with his poetry, Amy Goodman with her journalism, Judith Helfand with her environmental filmmaking, Martin Luther King with his sermons, Riana Eisler with her theology, and Pete Seeger with his songs. But of course, the counter-revolutionaries, absolutists and reactionaries, also express on radio, TV, newspaper, books, music, and drama. and often express well usually supported by well-healed patrons who have every interest in keeping things as they are or even turning back the clock a bit.

The role of art in revolution should not be underestimated. That is why oppressive regimes try to counter or control it through censorship, banishment, or worse. Art destabilizes, it causes people to think, it agitates. Yet at the same time art, like science and religion, seeks to find and create patterns in the chaos of life.

The "Beautiful" was classically defined as "what, when seen, pleases the observer." But that definition begged the question of why it pleases. Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience attempts to answer this by pointing out the brain's ability to name, to use symbols and models or images, to find and create patterns in the chaos of the universe. That is why one of the marks of a good scientific theory is its "elegance." It is also why artists are so fascinated with form.

The true revolutionary is both shaking up the present forms and presenting new ones often by rearranging the old. Good organizers know that organizing starts with disorganizing. Societies, nations, the world are already organized; but they are now organized to benefit some by exploiting others. That's what the organizer has to help the people to see. And art is her invaluable tool. Art with compassion. Art that brings people to sing along. Pete Seeger's kind of art.

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