Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Days of the Dead: Making Good Art in Bad Times

Puerto Rico hurricane devastation: New York Times
How can a fiction writer continue to work in a made-up world when so many bad things are happening in the real one? Why should we even bother? This has been on my mind as I somehow manage to work on my next novel, despite the daily bad news.

First, a list of the bad things.

The mass shootings in Las Vegas terrorized our nation. But what's more frightening is how quickly people and the media fell into the trope of 'the lone gunman' because he was rich and white. 

By now, it's been forgotten, politicized, de-politicized, churned and turned from empathy to apathy. And the NRA remains as emboldened as ever. Gun sales, including gun shows only steps from the scene of the horror, have risen sharply. Since the, half a dozen shootings killed two, five, or more people, registering merely a media blip.

Only yesterday (October 31, Halloween), a terrorist rammed a rental truck into a school bus of disabled children in Lower Manhattan. Here in San Francisco, while Halloween is no longer officially celebrated in the Castro district because of a shooting rampage, yet another shooting took place nearby that night.

In politics, indictments have finally been doled out to Trump administration lackeys for Russian collusion in fixing the 2016 election, and yet the self-delusions and massive lies continue unabated, from The White House to the wonky-eyed press rep, to their official propaganda arm at Fox "News."

Even if you consider some sources "fake news," if you disagree with NewsWeek's call that the Trump administration is the most corrupt in U.S. history, you'll clearly deluded and/or sadly misinformed.

Despite clear confirmed warnings about his insanity, Trumpies continue full-force with their far rightwing idiocy, and each day a new idiot gets to spew their bile. Their "alleged" Russian troll buddies are probably liking your social media posts right now.

But don't expect the Democrats to save us, as they're infighting to the point of their own collapse.

Napa fire; Mercuy News
Thousands in Napa and Sonoma counties remain homeless or dead/missing after devastating fires, most probably caused by faulty PG&E wires. The Mercury News also investigates this problem.

Hurricanes deaths in Puerto Rico approach 1,000, yet our corrupt administration denies it, denies assistance and responsibility. Until recently, most deplorables didn't even know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States.

In Texas, even the governor expressed worries about the bloated bureaucracy of the Red Cross after Hurrican Harvey flooded that state's major city of Houston.

And yet, the clown car of Trump nominees continue to deny climate change, like the lying liars who are in the pockets of petroleum and coal industries, also known as the "Destroy the planet at all costs" industries.

The healthcare fiasco continues. Sexual abuse and assault allegations flood the Hollywood media as women and men come forth with their ordeals. And worldwide, LGBT people are still facing mounting violence in several countries.

So, why should I, a mere small, independent writer of little stories mostly about white gay men in America, continue editing and rewriting romantic scenes, dialogue, or errors in historic settings in a novel that will only find, at most, a few thousand readers, as we edge closer to the possibility of North Korean nuclear attack?

One way is through Optimisitc Nihilism
Yes, it's a thing, as this Open Culture feature by Josh Jones explains.
“Optimistic Nihilism,” a philosophy that posits ultimate freedom in the midst of, and solely enabled by, the utter meaninglessness of existence: “If our life is the only thing we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, then the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.”
Another quote:

If we are to act in the face of doubt, mystery, ignorance, and the immensity of seemingly gratuitous suffering, we might heed John Keats’ prescription to develop “Negative Capability,” the ability to remain “content with half-knowledge.”  

So, while we don't know why things happen, we still have to absorb their existence, do what we can to help, or complain, or protest, or sign petitions, or give money, or volunteer, or keep writing books.

Because there will come a day when this disaster is over, or that criminal politician is in jail, or at least ousted. There will come a day when people in need will get help. But there also will be suffering, and while some enjoy offering 'thoughts and prayers,' others actually do things.
I've chosen to donate money to multiple causes, share the information for others, and go on living; not in blithe ignorance, but with a sense of purpose, for each task, no matter how small.

We sometimes have to willfully lie to ourselves that things will get better; to get out of bed hoping to enjoy a breakfast without starting a fire, to button a shirt hoping you'll feel okay enough to walk down a sidewalk without getting shoved aside by a jackhole cyclist, to get on a bus hoping to not be assaulted by a deranged person.

And as for writing; frankly, I've spent months being stultified by the daily monstrosities taking place. But after, what, a year now? It's gotten tiresome; the antics of our goon-in-chief, the lies, the horrors on the news. I didn't stop caring, but found the limits of what I can do to effect positive change, while refusing to collapse into complete withdrawal. 

I don't have to watch TV for it to invade my life. One social media scroll, and the daily awfulness can consume one's life. 

A recent art exhibit at the Barrett Art Center
I can't stop a hurricane. I can help a survivor, donate, donate more, attend a benefit, volunteer, organize a benefit.

And somewhere, in the midst of all this, we need to find the time to continue making our lives, our art, our world, better. Because artists, like water and food, are becoming a precious commodity.

As a January 2017 Adam Langer Salon feature states, in its examination of  great art emerging during bad times:
Here in the dawn of 2017, I’m much more concerned about the artists we’ll be losing than the ones these times will be inspiring — those who’ll be deported then sent to live behind some wall; those who’ll lose their health care benefits after the repeal of the Affordable Care Act; those who’ll be priced out of their homes and forced to move to dangerous Ghost Ships; those who won’t be able to afford college anymore or who will be blacklisted because their names are on some Muslim registry or who won’t get their projects funded by a gutted NEA. Does anyone in Aleppo now have the luxury to contemplate writing the Great Syrian Novel? And could it even be distasteful to wonder if they might?
Will great art emerge from these times? Of course it will, as it always does, but in spite of artists’ struggles, not because of them.
I've completed some of my best work during difficult times. That doesn't mean I want things to be bad, but that some sort of perseverance is required. The willful act of forcing The Muse out when it's not in the mood has become a necessary skill. 

I'll give Giulia Blasi, in her ExtraNewsFeed feature, a pointed quote:
Art is where these people are given back their voices: so what we do, as storytellers, as musicians, as painters and dancers and actors and directors is make art. Make beautiful things that whack people in the face with truth. Uncover the ugly side of mankind as well as the lovely. Quit navel-gazing and start looking up, out and towards others. This is particularly true for white, cisgender artists: the time for introspection is over. Solipsism is out, world-building is in. The art we make in these difficult times will remain as a testimony for future generations. So let’s make it count.
Does this mean that all art must be political in content? Isn't the act of making art political? While creativity should be the norm, and available for all, that isn't the case. We've become rarified and precious, perhaps removed from the realm of regular life.

If telling the stories of gay men, loving, living and yes, dying, isn't political enough, well, I'll leave it to others to make more blunt statements. In the meantime, I feel incredibly lucky; I'm employed, housed, relatively safe, and tonight The Muse is in the house.

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