We’ve all heard the cliches about millennials, so there’s no need to recap the long list of reasons why my generation is a pack of self-entitled, narcissistic, little bastards who would sooner poke each other with selfie sticks and instasnap mean tweets about the President than do an honest day’s work. One of these arguments has stood out to me as awkwardly as toast in the absence of organic avocado, and not because of how it paints us as different, but because it insults us for something that is supposed to be paramount to western civilization: our love of the Arts.
Don’t deny it. Come on, we’ve all heard this one before. “What are you studying in college?” they ask, and then stare blankly after you answer. “Oh, and what are you going to do with that (insert any vaguely creative degree) after school?” Sculpture. “Not practical.” Saxophone performance. “Are you really good enough?” Dance. “If you were my kid you’d be dancing that delusional ass into a STEM program.” Even my writing degree has been questioned relentlessly, and let’s be honest, that’s one of the more acceptable ones as far as the humanities go.
Now is this condescension grounded in practicality? From one perspective, of course. Crippling student loans and the inability to participate in the economy of our parents are only too real. It’s certainly disheartening to see how many people embrace such rhetoric in a culture that supposedly views artistic endeavors as the jewels of human activity, but it makes sense.
We need to move past the narrow view; the one that says writing poetry and being serious about it is all fine and good if, and only if, your house is in order. We also need to take it further than that. As a society we must go beyond the platitudes about how it’s the job of of the artists to hold a mirror up to our world. Thanks to the cameras on those fancy iPhones we love to spend money we don’t have on, everyone who doesn’t live in a cave has gotten a good look already. I want people to stop thinking about artists as the passive viewers and recorders of this horror-flick that is day-to-day life, and start thinking of them as activists in their own right.
Now I know what those of you who know me (and my love of writing epic fantasy) are thinking: this is a cleverly designed ploy by an ex-professional activist to justify doing something fundamentally unhelpful so that he can play around imagining sword fights and dragons all day. Hold thyself, negative naysayer! I never said writing books about the land of make-believe is the only important thing, but artists do have an important contribution to make and it’s not just as spectators.
The connections are endless, and not just in far-off, big picture ways such as the Harlem Renaissance preceding the Civil Rights movement or Pete Seeger singing about hammers and unions while holding political meetings across rural America. Artists matter now. It’s the reason why musicians and street performers across the country (particularly in my city of New Orleans) are absolutely crucial in the fight against gentrification. It’s the reason why visual art projects such as the one by Columbia’s Emma Sculkowicz (the mattress girl, you remember her) have played an enormous role in raising awareness about rape on college campuses. And on and on.
The point is these projects are not just about looking our world in the eye, they’re about confronting and challenging our culture, blackening that eye when the world is shit, and actively participating in dismantling society’s oppressive components. So no, you might not be able to buy a house in your twenties if you major in jazz-inspired water-color poetry dance with a minor in gender studies (but goddamn that sounds awesome, doesn’t it?), and the non-profit industry might not sing your praises if you can’t work for or donate to them. All the same, we need people to participate in the crucial work of movement building through artistic practice.
And who knows, you could always hit it big like Banksy and have your avocado-toast and eat it too.