(Book Preview) “The Role of the Artist in Times of Authoritarian Brutality: A Panel Discussion”

This is a special preview chapter from my book, Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough. The book is more-or-less a poetry book, but it’s written from the perspective of various characters; sometimes, those characters do other things beyond writing and performing poems—they have conversations, get into arguments, tell stories, and participate in panel discussions. Since Button will be posting a bunch of poems/videos from the book (like this one) over the next few months, I figured I’d share one of these non-poem pieces here.

In this excerpt, the robot poet Gyre has been invited to be part of a panel discussion; Gyre doesn’t want to, though, so makes their apprentice Nary do it instead.

A colorful illustration of four people seemingly talking over one another: a professor, a musician, a performance artist, and a poet.
Image by Casper Pham, one of many from the book

The Role of the Artist in Times of Authoritarian Brutality: A Panel Discussion

The Great Hall of Castle Whitecap, temporary host of the Floating University, the largest and onlyest center of learning outside of Heart. Our cast is seated on a bench behind a long, elevated table at the front of the room; students, faculty, and staff haphazardly occupy some 30-40 of the 200 rickety wooden chairs below. An owl tries to sleep in the rafters of the impressive, if not a bit ostentatious, hall.

Moderator: Welcome, students, faculty, and staff of the Floating University. We have some very special guests with us today for this important conversation. As many of you know, the council of Heart has been moving further and further away from the principles set into place by Hen March and the First Congress all those years ago. From the increase in propaganda, to the expanded role of the guard corps, to the ongoing saber rattling between districts—our society would be nigh-unrecognizable to March, were she still with us today. We are here today to discuss what artists can do in response to this reality. Allow me to introduce our panel.

First, we have Lord Professor Allington Fairmarket III, an instructor here in the University’s Aesthetics department who, according to his bio, “specializes in the written word’s relationship with embiosyntronic mass memory in the context of psychosexual post-liberatory impressionism.”

The audience politely applauds; Fairmarket stands and bows dramatically.

Next, we have someone many of you are familiar with, a singer and musician who regularly tours up and down the coast, please welcome Ever the Wiser!

The audience whoops and claps, noticeably louder; Ever doesn’t acknowledge them.

So pleased you could be here, Ever. Next, we have Dreamer Boothe, who…

Boothe (interrupting and climbing up onto the table): Actually, I have prepared my own intro, darling. Because do the stars themselves not teach us that we must speak ourselves into existence? Dreamer Boothe is half revolution, half restitution, half undisputed champion of creating A.R.T.: A Real Thing, Another Rebel Tantrum, Amazingly Refined Taste! Dreamer Boothe needs no introduction, no paltry breadcrumb trail of insufficient words to lead to some kind of “identity.” Dreamer Boothe is, of course, you. And you are, of course, perfect!

Scattered/confused applause; Boothe bows, gets down, and takes his seat.

Moderator: Right. Our final panelist is the acclaimed robot poet Gyre, who…

Nary (interrupting): Oh actually, Gyre didn’t want to do this, so they’re making me do it. My name’s Nary. I’m a poet. I have to say, I wasn’t told it’d be all men—

Moderator (interrupting): Our first question is this: What is the role of the artist in times of creeping authoritarianism? Professor?

Fairmarket (considers, stroking the long, bright yellow cord of his mortarboard cap): Ah, can we answer a question without first questioning its premise? My argument here is twofold. First we must identify the farcical within the fantastical, the pit of knowledge at the center of the fruit of social liquidity. Art is, is it not, first and foremost the “first” (as in, inaugural; as in antecedental), and “foremost” (as in, well, as Gradius told us, “for most of the populace will never be foremost; it falls upon us to push forward”). Second, we must acknowledge: the only true authoritarianism I’ve witnessed is when some arrogant dropout tried to critique me—me!—for suggesting that women who wear long pants should be expelled.  What’s more—

Boothe (no longer able to contain himself): Art IS the revolution! My paintings capture something primal, something positively fundamental about society, something all these marches and rallies and organized movement-building efforts simply will never come close to understanding! What tyrant can stand before my art and not weep? What would-be dictator dares to silence the rebellion… in my heart? (Scoffs).

Moderator: What about you, Ever? How would you answer that question?

Ever (gently prodded to life by the sound of his own name): Huh? I mean, I just try to keep it positive. I don’t really let the negativity get to me.

Moderator: Indeed. Moving on to the next question…

Nary (interrupting): Hey, I mean, can I answer too?

Moderator (stares blankly for a moment, as if remembering a childhood trip to the sea in which she witnessed someone drown): Fine.

Nary: Look, me and Gyre got here last night and we desperately need to spread the word about what’s going on. We saw a whole fishing village forcibly relocated. We saw protestors beaten by guards all over Heart. Bosses and bullies everywhere are gearing up for something. It’s getting worse, and we all need to be ready to push back. If we have to talk about art today, yeah, artists have a role to play. But abstract, intellectual theorizing is not going to be enough. Naive and toothless proclamations about the magical, immortal power of art are not going to be enough. And man, that kind of aloof, head-in-the-sand, “positivity” garbage is definitely not going to be enough. What we have to do, as artists, is recognize the absolute crisis moment we find ourselves in. Can we all at least agree on that?

Moderator (without missing a beat): Our next question: What is your favorite example of a piece of art that “speaks truth to power?”

Boothe: My last whimsically interactive arts-perience took the citizens of Wing by storm! By gale and cyclone! First, I received a grant from the local Baron, whose mistress loved the theater. I used the money to sustain myself over a grueling eleven months as I created a sequence of new works, each more outrageous than the last. The brilliance, however, is that it wasn’t the art that was the center of the show; it was the artist! In the gallery space of Wing’s cultural center, I stood, paintbrush in hand, and allowed people to put things into my pockets! Notes, coins, buttons, anything they wanted! It demolished the wall between genius and witness! It changed lives! It taught those wretched peasants that there was something to live for beyond their mushroom farms and barn dances! Imagine a child, after an adolescence of dreary humdrummery, finally realizing that one day, someone might put something in their pocket!

Fairmarket: I am reminded of the Lost Works of the great Lord Semanticist of the First Oneway’s Circle of Truthing, Gabboh. Gabboh wrote in code, you see, a code so brilliantly labyrinthine that to this day, it has not been broken. I can think of no better way to speak truth to power than to create a work that cannot be read, a shining beacon of artistry locked forever in a beautiful tomb. Incidentally, my new book, A Shining Beacon of Artistry Locked Forever in a Beautiful Tomb is available now at the University bookstore.

Nary (seething): So with one example, we have some gimmicky interactivity to distract from the fact that the art isn’t really saying or doing anything, and with the other, we have the most literal example of inaccessibility I have ever heard. I’m starting to think that we, as a community, are not ready for this. We’re dancing straight into our graves.

Moderator: So your answer is some kind of dance you saw once? Thank you. What about you, Ever? You’ve been all over this moon. Do you have a favorite example of art that speaks truth to power?

Ever (eating an apple): Not really. I just like to keep it positive. It’s like, what did power ever do to me? I say, live and let live, let’s just push all that negativity and conflict to the side.

Moderator: That’s an important point. How can…

Nary (interrupting): What!?

Moderator: …How can art build bridges between, for example, the cultists of the central desert and the villages from which they extort tribute?

Nary: Okay, let’s run with that. First of all, those cultists are funded and trained by the military’s central command; that’s an open secret. They’re not just randomly threatening these villages, the same villages that have resisted Heart’s authority for decades. So one thing artists can do is support the opposition movement within Heart itself, which is still (at least for now) a semi-democracy. Raise money and resources, help spread the word, organize big, fun events that get people excited about showing up and getting involved. If we wanted to get really real, though, think about this: artists regularly move from village to village to perform or share their art. What a lot of the desert rim villages need is information; artists could help create a network of info-sharing regarding the latest raids, the movements of the cultists, and what defensive tactics have worked in other villages. Some are already doing this.

Boothe: But what are the songs about?

Nary: What?

Boothe: You know, the songs, the poems—how do they move people?

Nary: People’s lives are in danger. What’s needed right now is deeper than art about the situation; artists need to take an active role in changing the situation.

Boothe (grinning smugly): That’s where you’re wrong, my friend. There is nothing deeper than art. (stand up on the table again). What is needed is expression! Has anyone tried painting a portrait of a cultist? What if the villagers paid tribute… in song? Has a raiding party ever been met by… a dance party? (begins energetically dancing).

Fairmarket: Indeed, indeed. I am reminded of the Moon Whisperers, a people who exist only in the footnotes of that great, unpublished tome, Garnagalla’s Bastion. What the Moon Whisperers represent, of course, is a classic Gradian antithetical, a break from subjective narrative coalescence vis-à-vis the bifurcation of…

Ever (interrupting, also petting a cat): What are you guys even talking about? It’s not that complicated. Just do your thing. Make your art. Things will work out.

Nary: Unless a bunch of people get murdered by cultists! Or Heart sends the military in to “liberate” the border villages!

Ever: See, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s just, like, super negative. You can’t let all that negativity get to you. You have to surround yourself with, like, positivity instead.

Nary (puts head on table)

Moderator: So, so true. Let’s get to our final question. What gives you hope for the future?

Fairmarket: Authoritarians do not frighten me. For do we not now live under a different kind of authoritarianism? One that posits an object must adhere to its conditional radiance? One that even entertains the notion of conditional radiance? Bah. And besides: even if the Emperor’s council did tip toward dictatorship, it would never cut our funding; our university trains some of its greatest minds.

Boothe: Not many people know this, but HOPE is actually an acronym. It stands for Happenstance, Opportunity, Petrichor, and Ebullience. Do I have a veritable surplus of all four of those things? Yes I do. Now, I know we’ve heard from some “haters” today (glances at Nary), but I have to say: when I look at our home, I see a moon on the rise! I see a blank canvas, ready for me to paint the word “redemption” in the brightest of blues. I see a government that, sure, isn’t perfect, but hey: isn’t imperfection… a kind of beauty too?

Ever (apparently wandered away from the panel a few minutes earlier with nobody noticing)

Nary (takes a deep breath): Look. I have hope because I live here. What choice do I have? Even surrounded by these fools, I know there are enough non-fools out here that we can make a real difference. 

The next few years are going to be hard. The bad guys are going to win some battles. They’ll take more and more power, and try to squeeze more and more people out of the future they want. And the scary thing is that it isn’t just the corrupt leaders and Bosses. There’s an authoritarianism that lives inside a whole lot of us, even the decent folk. 

When we care more about punishing crimes than preventing harm. When we care more about our “team” winning than whether or not people are suffering. When we care more about following the rules than thinking critically about what the rules are in the first place. We’ve got to fight it in ourselves too. And artists can have a meaningful role in that work. 

Sometimes that work is in our art; like, sure, writing about the realities that people face today matters. Creating art about what tomorrow might look like matters. And sometimes it’s less about the art, and more about the space we take up in this society, the audiences we have access to, the literal places we move through. But either way, we have to face the situation. We have to engage with reality.

I’ll wrap up with this: If someone hates someone else, or cares more about their material possessions than other people’s lives, I don’t think I can write a poem that will change their mind. But “changing minds” isn’t the only thing artists can do.

We can be mobilizers. We can movement-builders. We can use our networks to spread information. We can preach to the choir, and then that choir can knock a wall down. That choir can sing so loud they knock all the walls down.

It’s a cool metaphor… but it is a metaphor. Songs can’t actually knock walls down, no matter how loud they are. But singers can.

Moderator: Yes, yes, music is beautiful. That’s our time. Thanks again to our panelists. Light refreshments are available in the dining hall.

Find more of the adventures of Gyre and Nary (and a bunch of poems too) in Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough.