It’s a familiar scene in today’s political and social landscape: An artist makes a political statement, said political statement offends a portion of the artist’s audience, and the audience demands that the artist in question “stay out of politics and stick to making art.” Set aside that this angry chorus is also made up of people who are not themselves experts and politicians, just what impetus does an artist have to speak up or stay silent on the issues that matter to them the most?
Unless your current address is “beneath the world’s densest rock,” you may have noticed that our society is presently bitterly divided over the future of our nation and our world. Some of us want to see an equitable society for all people and the survival of our planet. Some of us want it to stay the same as it’s always been, regardless of that history’s demonstrable inequities. As an artist, I’ve found myself in the position of being able to speak openly online and in song without much fear of professional consequence. I’m sure my candor online has alienated some and has certainly cost me bookings and fans. I have had my share of the old “stick to making music and stay out of politics” from followers of my band. Though I have not gotten rich to date as an independent musician, I doubt there is a number that would move me to sell out in this way. In the face of a very real global rise in neofascism and white nationalism, as well as a palpable increase in domestic hate crimes, there is no loss of income too great or decrease in following so significant as to nullify my duty as an artist to the society I live in.
In his 1962 essay “The Creative Process,” writer, cultural critic, and artist James Baldwin asserts, “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.” I love America. She is my history, my home, and my muse. Her national parks are my backyard, her waterways my church. I traverse her vast and sprawling highways every day like a single platelet in an endlessly rushing blood stream, feeling very much a part of the collective force that gives her life. Of course I have a right under the First Amendment to say whatever I’d like, but it is my duty as a citizen to help create, under the law, an equitable society for all people.
Since the first human likenesses were carved into cave walls in the South of France 10,000 years ago, art has recorded our history, our values, and preserved our culture. Our artistic works are the very record by which we document humanity. We artists of the 21st century face a sort of competitor in the internet, which is nothing less than our collective ego, in all its beauty, ignorance, and failure, reflected back at us. We navigate our experience with mirror-like screens in front of our faces, endlessly uploading and replaying our chosen narrative on the cinema inside our heads. It is no longer the sole duty of the artist to record this collective cultural evolution. But what do we do to challenge that narrative, when what we choose to give our limited attention spans to — be it Breitbart or the New York Times — often irrevocably shapes our perceptions of our world? Who do we turn to to challenge our carefully constructed truths?
I believe that is the role of the artist, to break up the wind tunnel of our minds. If we lose followers because of it, we have only succeeded in creating the necessary conditions to birth honest and affecting work. We have achieved, in the words of Baldwin, “… that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.” So if my goal is honest and affecting art, no amount of ostracizing could seek to dissuade me.
Because of my ability to live, work, and move through our society with the incredible freedom afforded to a white, heterosexual artist in America, I have a duty to question and challenge the society in which I live, presenting my findings in the form of art and dialogue. To abandon this call would be to abandon myself, my country, and my fellow citizens, many of whom do not at present experience the same access as I do. In this way I have sought to honor Baldwin’s definition of the artist as “… the incorrigible disturber of the peace.”
If all I have to affect a change is this tiny soapbox I’ve built on the back of 10 years on the road, then I will use it. I can’t promise that I won’t alienate some along the way, but I can try to create art that inspires thought, rather than preach at people. I can provide welcoming spaces on my pages and at my shows for discussion, and strive to ask questions that challenge my biases and paradigms. I’m not claiming I can change the world in this way, but I am saying I can change how I exist in it. If you ask me to stick to music and stay out of politics, I will answer, incorrigibly, “No.”
Megan Jean Klay is one-half of the husband-and-wife duo, Megan Jean and the Klay Family Band, who you can listen to at meganjean.net.