Art & Literature are Vital to Democracy

Why are we here? Why was I created? What’s the purpose of this thing called life? 

Not all art must be inclusive, but no art should be exclusive. Neither literature nor creative writing must ever be privileged as a luxury, for our story will be too easily controlled that way. And while art itself might not change the world, it’s abundantly clear that it can empower those who will.

To artists, whose essential purpose is creation, these grand questions are felt profoundly — the human condition is our stock in trade, even if it’s incredibly privileged to ponder it as one’s profession. As millions struggle to make enough money to eat, we struggle to make art. This is why every serious artist, at some point, questions: is what I do useful, or relevant to everyone — or is it simply luxurious? 

As a creative writing practitioner and teacher, I wrestle with this constantly. 

Beauty, identity, discourse, documentation, exaltation, or even just exposing a stink does indeed benefit humanity. But when the climate is changing alarmingly, and millions displaced by war are unwelcome in most places, and our leaders increasingly justify abusive power, it’s easy to question the value of telling stories or building sculpture. After all, what does a painting give to the populace? How can a writer take on a president?

Uncovering larger truths

The answers, perhaps, are found in art itself. One success proves the potential of all the rest. 

If you remember in 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was to deliver to the United Nations a declaration of war against Iraq, the tapestry depicting Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was covered up. It was said that the image of the fascist bombardment of civilians was too shameful to face. How could we discuss an unprompted war in front of one of history’s greatest rebukes to warfare?

The details, however, were apparently more mundane. Camera crews had simply worried about the cluttered background the cubist tapestry would present behind speaking officials. And the number of journalists attending the press conference had swelled, requiring a more capacious venue down the hall. 

Those facts, it is said, were behind why Guernica was censored (so to speak). Yet the covering of it, for whatever reason, uncovered a larger truth that resonated around the world. The implicit irony became explicit commentary. Picasso had unveiled the image in 1937, yet 66 years later, and 36 years after his death, the painter was still speaking to us.