On a recent episode of “Dope with Lime,” I spoke with Michael Bibler about a recent course he taught, “Baldwin’s Queer South.” We spoke about a lot of things, but one thing that got me thinking was the role of art and the artist in the world. He mentioned James Baldwin’s “The Creative Process,” and after our discussion, I went to read Baldwin’s 1962 essay, and I revisited Lillian Smith’s “The Role of the Poet in a World of Demagogues,” a speech she delivered in 1965 after being the first recipient of the Queen Esther Scroll, awarded by the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress.” Both Baldwin and Smith explore the artist’s role in the examination and formation of society. They are not unique in this discussion, by any means; however, I find their exploration of these themes important for us to think about.
Baldwin calls the artist “that incorrigible disturber of the peace” who battles with society and its traditions. The artist, in every society, butts heads with tradition and with society’s desire to stand as a “bulwark against the inner and outer chaos,” protecting individuals from “themselves” in order for them to have a bearable life. The confrontation of tradition proves difficult and an irritant to most of society because, as Baldwin writes, “it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, that the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will almost be unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it.”
From this standpoint, the artist can be anything from a poet and novelist to a historian or literary critic. The acknowledgement that traditions, whatever they may be, have not been around forever is a direct affront to societies, namely because it gets in the way of maintaining power and controlling a populace. The artist faces these traditions head on, in whatever medium they work within, and illuminates the holes in the reasoning that claims a tradition has been with us since time immemorial. Look at the ways that people attack Nikkole Hannah Jones and the 1619 Project. Look at the rhetoric surrounding abortion never being legal in the United States before Roe v. Wade. Look at the individuals claiming Kiku Hughes was being ahistorical in Displacement when she included LGBTQ individuals in the Japanese incarceration camps. These are but a few examples where artists poke holes in supposed traditions.
Baldwin points out that the artist “must never cease warring with [society], for its sake and his own” because the artist, through the work, looks into themselves, making sense of the internal and outward chaos surrounding them. Through this act, the artist assesses how the traditions and society hinder us from becoming our true selves. The artist taps into the truth about the past and the present where others, as Baldwin puts it, find themselves unable to confront themselves: “We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self.” Art is self-discovery as much as it is expression. It arises out a desire for the individual to dive into their own being and examine themselves, and this, as I’ve written about countless times, is a scary process to undertake.
Baldwin extends this self-reflection to the nation and society, arguing that unless the nation can fully examine itself–its strengths and weaknesses–they will falter. For all of its faults, Baldwin sees hope, proclaiming that “we have an opportunity which no other nation has moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste” to move towards what the ideals the originators of the United States professed, for all not just for some. However, the cost of this endeavor “is a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record.” This is where we are right now. This is where we have been before. This is what we need to do. Until we look at the past, examining it and peeling it apart, we will not move beyond “the Old World concepts.” This fear of looking backwards, while the artist does just that, makes the artist a pariah to society because the artist, through the process of examining the chaos, brings light to the things we must confront, bringing them out of the shadows into the light where we can confront them.
Like Baldwin, Smith comments on the role of the artist in confronting the internal and outward chaos, specifically the chaos enacted by the demagogues that individuals internalize. She writes, “Of them all, perhaps the most dangerous demagogues are those that crouch in our own minds, whispering lies at a time when we so desperately need to hear the poet’s deep truths.” Smith constantly writes and speaks about the need for individuals to self-reflect on their own positions, interrogating the demagogic and white supremacist rhetoric surrounding them. The artists serve as the ones to initiate this reflection, bringing individuals to that point through the work artists create. “For only the poet,” Smith states, “can look beyond details at the total picture; only the poet can feel the courage beyond fear.” The poet seeks to expose the inner truth, challenging the supposed traditions.
Rather than the old maxim “art imitates life,” Smith flips the phrase around, claiming that “men imitate art” because our reality stems from the dreams we imbibe from the artists. The hopes and desires we partake in exist in response to “everyday reality,” they are not “everyday reality.” We must dream and hope in order to look at ourselves and our collective past; when we fail to do that, we fail society. What we see reflected back at us, the dilemmas of the world, “come from our deepest roots, from the shadowy, unconscious part of our nature.” They come what has entered our beings since our entrance into the world. They exist within us, growing tendrils that burrow into our very being. The artist accompanies us as we look at our reflection, and the artist taps into these tendrils, snipping them piece by piece, working diligently to eradicate them from our inner self. The artist becomes our guide on the path, helping us see the dilemmas within ourselves and confronting them. When the artist isn’t there, we must be the ones to delve within ourselves, alone, working to pull out the deep rooted infectious tendrils.
There’s a lot more that I could say here, but I’ll leave it at that for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.