At the end of May I attended a conference sponsored by the Community Arts Network, a uniquely rich resource for anyone interested in culture and community. It was conceived as a state of the field meeting, a check-in. While some of the participants were relative newcomers to community cultural development practice, there were enough 20-30-year veterans to make it feel like an especially wonderful class reunion.
I expected the meeting to be interesting and the company to be delightful, but I didn’t expect it to be so self-revelatory. Everyone was distraught about the degraded, corrupt official culture of our country; everyone longed to feel pride instead of shame. But in contrast to days gone by, our distress hadn’t led to cultural action. We recognized the potency of the image war now being waged –the Abu Ghraib photos alone carry a multi-megaton payload of political and moral meaning. But unlike Vietnam, unlike Nicaragua and El Salvador, we had not mobilized artists to make use of these images to awaken our citizenry. We recognized that we are mere months away from a presidential election, and we had not even begun to present a democratic cultural policy platform to the candidates.
We noticed, in short, that we had silenced ourselves. The silence is rooted in demoralization, in radically lowered expectations, in the losses of livelihood, infrastructure, and opportunity of the last two decades. Somewhere along the line, without really knowing it, despairing of being heard, we had stopped our voices as a movement of artists, and in doing so, had ceded the ground of public cultural policy and discourse to the other side.
Do you know this joke? A man has a terrible run of bad luck, family tragedy, ill health, financial reverses. Finally, on the verge of losing his business, he asks God for help. At the synagogue, he raises his hands to the heavens: “Have mercy!” the poor man beseeches. “At least let me save my home from the creditors, let me win the lottery.” Another bad week ensues, and the man returns again to plead with God: “Have mercy, at least let me win the lottery!” He returns a week later, even more desperate, forcing himself to make a final plea: “Have mercy, at least let me win the lottery!” A thunderclap splits the silence. The synagogue fills with a booming Voice. “Have mercy!” says the Voice. “At least buy a ticket!”
Whew! That was a close call! I’m glad our group realized we’d forgotten to buy a lottery ticket. Watch this space for signs of life, coming soon.