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Something to Say: Thoughts on Art and Politics in America

Something to Say: Thoughts on Art and Politics in America

Автором Richard Klin и Lily Prince

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Something to Say: Thoughts on Art and Politics in America

Автором Richard Klin и Lily Prince

178 pages
2 hours
Apr 19, 2011


"Klin is an insightful interviewer and a marvelous writer. We were delighted to have the opportunity to publish the interview with Howard Zinn from Something to Say."The Bloomsbury Review

The fusion of art and politics is axiomatic in much of the world. In America, their relationship is erratic. What is art in the service of social justice? Is an artist obligated to address the political? This book profiles, in words and photos, disparate creative forces who offer thoughts on their point of engagement with the political sphere. In the words of Pete Seeger, art "may save the world. Visual arts, dancing, acting arts, cooking arts. . . . Joe DiMaggio reaching for a fly ballthat was great dancing!"

Profiles in Something to Say:

  • The late Howard Zinn
  • Pete Seeger
  • Yoko Ono
  • Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner
  • Palestinian American standup comedian Maysoon Zayid
  • Poet Quincy Troupe
  • Dominican American painter Freddy Rodríguez
  • Filmmaker Gini Reticker
  • Slowpoke cartoonist Jen Sorensen
  • Performance and installation artist Sheryl Oring
  • Children's writer Jacqueline Woodson
  • Chef and food activist Didi Emmons
  • Chinese American poet and art critic John Yau
  • Punk-rock activist Franklin Stein of the band Blowback
  • Klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals

Richard Klin's writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Forward, The Bloomsbury Review, Parabola, The Rambler, and other media.

Lily Prince has exhibited in over fifty national and international exhibitions and has been awarded commissions by numerous hotels and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. She is an associate professor of art at William Paterson University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Newark Star-Ledger, New American Paintings, San Francisco Weekly, and other media.

Apr 19, 2011

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Richard Klin is a freelance writer and editor and the author of Something to Say: Thoughts on Art and Politics in America (2011).

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Something to Say - Richard Klin



The intersection of art and politics has long engendered passionate, wide-ranging responses. In much of the world, though, political art—while not free from controversy—is the norm. A debate on the desirability of socially conscious art is difficult to imagine in Central America or the Middle East. Yet in the United States, these issues are far from settled. Art and politics here have had a fluctuating, complicated interrelationship.

The United States, though, does have a notable, inspiring history of artists of all stripes utilizing their craft in the cause of political struggle and the advancement of human rights. In the early years of the twentieth century, Upton Sinclair’s novel of immigrant struggle, The Jungle, stunned the country with its graphic, stomach-turning descriptions of the truly vile nature of meat processing and was an impetus to the cause of consumer protection. The IWW—the Wobblies—the pioneering, radical activist union, made full use of song, as did subsequent labor struggles and the Civil Rights movement. The human catastrophe of the Great Depression can be conveyed via the searing photographs of Walker Evans. It takes exactly one word—Babbitt—to describe a narrow-minded provincial; it takes two—Archie Bunker—to describe a loud-mouthed bigot. The lunacy of the cold war is perfectly encapsulated in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. And in the recent past, it was assumed that a politician could overcome all manner of controversy—except becoming fodder for Johnny Carson’s monologue.

The eponymous protagonist of E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel observes, only partially tongue-in-cheek, that there is a direct, causal connection between Holden Caulfield’s rebellious disgust and sixties radicalism. And the sixties, of course, was the era in which practically every conceivable medium was utilized in the service of social change.

But what about now?

Something to Say is a collection of profiles and photos of an eclectic group of American artists working in a wide range of media. The focus of these narratives is, quite broadly, thoughts on political art-making, with political as expansively defined and jargon-free as possible.

The decision to focus exclusively on creative talent in the United States should not be interpreted as parochial. It is simply an acknowledgment of political peculiarities that are, more or less, unique to the United States. The broad issues faced here are not exceptional—there is nothing intrinsically American about a bloated military or a huge gap between rich and poor. But there is much about the American body politic that simply doesn’t translate: A high-tech, global superpower where a sizable proportion of the population believes in UFOs; a country with deep, entrenched racism that nonetheless elected Barack Obama.

An enormous amount of consideration was given as to who would be included in this book and a concerted effort was made to be as far-ranging as possible when it came to artist and medium. As possible, though, is the operative phase. Something to Say is not at all a random sampling, but it is a sampling, not the last word or in any way a comprehensive survey of the current state of radical creativity—if such a thing could exist. In this same spirit, Lily Prince’s photography is not merely an exercise in formal portraiture but instead an effort to convey a deep sense of each of the inter viewees in a painterly fashion.

There were some surprises along the way. It was fascinating to discover how many of those profiled had roots—personal roots, artistic roots or both—in places other than the United States. Pete Seeger has brought international music to the attention of the American listening public. The poet Quincy Troupe is strongly aware of his family’s origins in Haiti. To standup comic Maysoon Zayid—a child of Palestinian immigrants—the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is an intrinsic part of her life offstage and on. Painter Freddy Rodgríguez emigrated at a young age from the Dominican Republic—a small country that has tragically suffered the consequences of close geographic proximity to the United States. Filmmaker Gini Reticker’s lens has been aimed at Africa and the Middle East. The intricacies of Greek music were a formative influence on violinist Alicia Svigals, who later rose to prominence playing klezmer, the colloquial music of the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry. John Yau’s Chinese heritage has been a central motif in his writing. Howard Zinn’s parents were immigrants, and painter and performance artist Sheryl Oring has a family history of immigration—seminal influences for both of them. Franklin Stein of the punk-activist band Blowback spent his younger years in Chile; he has been deeply affected by the coup that toppled the government of Salvador Allende. And Yoko Ono, as the world knows, was raised in Japan.

The willingness of these interviewees to speak candidly about their politics, their art, and their creative process—as well as let us into their homes and work spaces—was a real act of trust and generosity.

Howard Zinn was interviewed just months before his death. It was an honor, in the truest sense of the word, to be able to meet with him.

The biggest and most significant surprise was the absolute, across-the-board optimism. These artists have plunged into some of the messiest, ugliest, seemingly intractable issues. They would be more than justified taking refuge in bitterness or cynicism. But as these pages reveal, any private angst or pessimism has somehow been subsumed by this overriding imperative to create. In other words, Don’t mourn, organize—or, more precisely: Don’t mourn—sing, write, draw, paint, cook, listen, construct, make music, tell jokes.

In addition to the unexpected consensus of hope and optimism, there was the shared feeling that yes, art can change the world. We Shall Overcome didn’t singlehandedly dismantle segregation, nor did Picasso’s Guernica save the Spanish Republic. One doesn’t learn a song or read a book and abolish injustice the next day. But art—of all sorts—has been part and parcel of every social struggle in this country. And sometimes the good guys do actually win in the end.

As these words were being written, an environmental cataclysm was threatening to obliterate an entire ecosystem in the Gulf Coast. Art can’t clean up the torrent of oil. But perhaps it can help ensure that nothing like this happens ever again.

—Richard Klin

Hudson Valley, New York

Pete Seeger

The Music Man

In New York State’s Hudson Valley, an activist group assembles for its regular gathering. The Hudson River, just within sight, is an impressive backdrop. The prevailing mood is far from somber but at the same time discernibly no-nonsense, as evidenced by the utilitarian venue itself: a many-times refurbished, ramshackle wooden structure that was, in a previous incarnation, a diner. And as befits a former place of commerce, the commuter rail station is only a short walk away.

It is a longstanding ritual reenacted countless times in every region of the country: Community-minded activists meet, discuss, plan, and conclude with the end-ofevening potluck.

As usual, Pete Seeger is in attendance, his presence handled seamlessly. There is no pretense that he is simply another member, yet the evening’s itinerary remains unimpeded.

Pete Seeger had recently turned ninety, fresh from the star-studded birthday tribute concert at Madison Square Garden and finally—after seventy years of music-making and activism—the object of widespread, reverential coverage from mainstream media.

He is an imposing yet disarming presence, the smooth, rolling cadences of his speaking voice as melodious as any song. The piercing, penetrating eyes are the most arresting, undimmed by age or fatigue.

It is almost impossible to comprehend how so many continuous decades upon decades of musical activism—a span without parallel—could be lodged in this one person. An overview of the myriad topics covered in a lifetime of song reads like a primer on the history of the American left: union anthems, solidarity with the Spanish Republic, civil rights and equality, disarmament, reverence for the earth, the battle against predatory capitalism, an end to war. Arriving on the scene during the Roosevelt administration, he has been at the vortex of socially conscious music, beginning with a seminal association with Woody Guthrie, continuing with the folk ensemble the Almanac Singers, and then, after the end of the Second World War, the creation of the iconic (and improbably successful) Weavers.

There was a price to be paid for exuberant, outspokenly political music-making and Seeger suffered along with countless others during the dark days of the McCarthyera blacklist. His gradual reemergence was facilitated by his long-running series of engaging children’s concerts: a cornerstone of his musical outreach.

And then, of course, came the 1960s and—to a degree almost unfathomable now—a massive folk revival. The Hammer Song, a late-1940s Weavers number, restructured as If I Had a Hammer by Peter, Paul and Mary, served as one of the era’s touchstones. His performance on the Smothers Brothers television show is still referenced—over forty years later—in the annals of anti–Vietnam War protest. Musical guest Seeger chose to sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, the story of an army platoon dispatched on a clearly suicidal mission by an inept, reckless captain. The allegory to Lyndon Johnson’s stewardship—complete with the barbed refrain but the big fool said to push on—was unmistakable. CBS chopped out the offending lyrics and then in the face of widespread public outrage, relented.

Seeger’s prominence did not come with unfettered public adulation. Another perception of him emerged—a distorted and inaccurate one, according to many—of an inflexible folk mandarin, standing firm against the amped-up Bob Dylan during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

And as if this were not enough activism for many lifetimes, his concern for the sustainable future of the Hudson—his golden river—spawned the environmentally aware Clearwater movement and a long-running, still thriving, eclectic music festival of the same name.

Characteristically, Pete Seeger delivers an opening salvo in a gentle tone but also does not pull any punches: If there’s a human race here in a hundred years—and as you know, it’s a toss-up if there will be—because stupid scientists are inventing things they never should invent. Starting with Einstein, going on to Oppenheimer and others. Now they have biological weapons. Can’t you see it—it could be two thousand years from now; some insane person says, ‘God has told me to put an end to life on earth and now I have the key to that biological weapon.’

There is a seemingly unshakable reservoir of idealism that has served as the leitmotif of his entire career. It’s quite possible, he contends, that at this very moment there exists a young person destined to compose the next song that can change the world. And not just music, but the entire spectrum of the arts may save the world. Visual arts, dancing, acting arts, cooking arts . . . and I would include sports. Joe DiMaggio reaching for a fly ball—that was great dancing!

And has Pete Seeger changed the world with his art? "Well, I’ve been planting seeds all my life. And you know the parable in the Bible: Some seeds fall on the pathway and get stomped on; they don’t grow. Some fall on stones—they don’t even sprout. And I have a song—but some seeds fall on hallowed ground/they grow and multiply a thousandfold."

We got to keep on keeping on, he has written in False from True, even when the sun goes down/we got to live, live, live until another day comes ’round. But does this exact a heavy toll? Seeger has certainly seen much in the way of blood and strife in his ninety years. God only knows what the future’s going to be. Nobody knows. My hope, frankly, is in small things. Big organizations can be co-opted. My mantra . . . [is] the agricultural revolution took thousands of years. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years. But the information revolution is only taking decades and if we use it—and use the brains God gave us—who knows what miracles may happen in the next few years? Well, one great miracle happened last November [of 2008].

Barack Obama, though, hardly springs from radical roots. Does this administration portend a vast sea change in American politics?

"Not as big as people hoped. You know, someone wrote Abraham Lincoln: ‘Mr. President, the Emancipation Proclamation has been on your desk for months. Why haven’t you signed it?’ And Lincoln wrote back and said, ‘I cannot sign it yet—you keep pushing!’ And that’s what basically Obama is going to say to us.

‘You want me to sign that? You keep pushing. ’

Months after this gathering on the Hudson, Pete Seeger—completely unaccompanied—stands onstage at an outdoor concert, garbed in unprepossessing casual wear and utilitarian red cap. The setting is a college campus, his refuge during those horrible years of the blacklist and the most organic locus for his songs and stories. The audience encompasses the full spectrum of age, including a sizable contingent of the toddler and kindergarten set and a surprisingly large proportion of undergraduates, born decades after the hope and tumult of the 1960s.

The children in the audience receive a

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