My last essay, on a generation gap among socially engaged artists, has provoked quite a bit of response. Now I’m moved to write by readers’ descriptions of encounters with younger activist artists they perceived as remarkably uninterested in getting down to the work, to the deep learning needed to ground their practice in a continuum of experience.
One complained of what she called laziness: she said that often, when she wasn’t completely satisfied with a younger activist artist’s first try at something, she’d been astounded to see the younger person pick up and leave rather than try again. In contrast, she described herself at the same age, working with a mentor whose practice it was to examine every word and gesture, prizing the meaning out of seemingly minor details the way a determined cook picks every last morsel from a pecan shell. She explained that this painstaking work was sometimes hard on the ego, but it taught her to be keenly conscious of the impact of her words and deeds, and thus to be a better artist and better organizer. It also taught her not to be so attached to the first fruits of her labor: the product of repeated attention, she said, was almost always a huge improvement.
She said that when younger activists were willing to learn and apply themselves even when their first efforts fell short of the mark, they were amazing. When they were not, they were insufferable, or merely absent.
The other reader recounted a conversation with a younger person who announced her plan to write something calling attention to a particular human rights issue. That’s great, said this reader, mentioning a number of pivotal conferences and publications that could be useful reference points. The younger activist’s reaction revealed that she’d come to her concept unaided by history; rather than appreciating the information, she seemed surprised and a little annoyed that her idea’s originality was in question.
Both readers wondered whether an apparent lack of interest in roots and antecedents (and the feeling that tossed-off work is good enough) stems from the ultra-permissive parenting style of many in our own generational cohort. That brought to mind kids whose lot in life was to make up for the restrictions and emotional deprivations of their parents’ childhoods: kids who were given no boundaries, who had perpetual license to talk without being expected to listen in return, who were praised extravagantly and equally for everything they did and made. That child-rearing regime seems to produce remarkable self-confidence, a good thing that becomes its opposite in adulthood when it is unmoored by actual ability or achievement.
The obvious question is whether this perceived generation gap is any different from the one my generation experienced. Is it merely that each generation develops curmudgeonly tendencies with age, finding fault with those coming up?
Maybe so. But saying that doesn’t exhaust the subject. For one thing, the content of these complaints was very different from those made by elders against my generation. Forty years ago, we were charged with disrespecting social codes: bad language, messy hair, disgraceful clothes, disregard for drug laws and conventional sexual mores. We were charged with undermining society’s cherished institutions, those that upheld the existing order. We were charged with cavalier disregard of economic realities, with a lack of seriousness as it had been defined by previous generations, with loving pleasure more than was seemly.
Today, my friends and I still value much of the social critique that generated such complaints against us from anxious, even terrified parents. We acquired it in the sixties by reading the stellar authors whose ideas fed counterculture, by attending teach-ins, by discussing what we’d learned in women’s groups and study groups, by starting open universities and other free school programs, and often, by working with mentors who helped us grapple with what we were learning, relating it to our own lives. The mind-expanding experience of reading writers like James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Susan Brownmiller or Paul Goodman for the first time, of sitting with teachers like Staughton Lynd or C. Wright Mills, of learning from activists like Dave Dellinger or Fannie Lou Hamer—the pervasive desire was to see things freshly, to truly understand, and to bring that understanding down to earth.
What was being expressed in these exchanges with readers wasn’t middle-aged alarm at youth’s loose habits, but something much more serious. It was anxiety that younger activist artists will squander this moment, when change is ripening, by not being willing to put in the time for self-study and cultivation that would enable them to stand on the shoulders of giants such as the aforementioned heroes to many in my generation, living bridges who had glimpsed in their own dreams the first rays of an awakening that has not yet fully dawned.
Maybe some in my generation are a trifle cranky, feeling our egos chafe at those members of younger generations who see our experience and wisdom as irrelevant. But with respect to a generation whose relation to technology and understanding of global realities actually, finally, thrillingly equips its best and brightest to live up to Stewart Brand’s exhortation in 1968 Whole Earth Catalog (“We are as gods and might as well get good at it”), being a little cranky doesn’t preclude being right.
But it doesn’t guarantee it either. When I began to think about the self-directed learning and self-chosen teachers so important to us during the sixties, I started to get excited all over again. We could do a teach-in, I thought, sharing the lineage of cultural activism, putting younger activist artists in touch with the history of issues and influences that preceded them. Then I was brought up short: I’m on the supply side of that idea, but back in the day, this type of learning and relationship was driven by demand, by learners’ hunger for knowledge, as it should be.
Is this ringing in my ears the buzz of growing demand? Or just my cranky wake-up call?