The Importance of the Artist in Troubled Times

As Northern Ireland prepares to go to election once again, and America prepares to swear in a businessman with no political experience that has filed six times for bankruptcy protection, poet Lesley Martin writes about the importance of art in troubled times and how we need to keep writing and creating with current issues in mind.

On March 2nd 2017, the people of Northern Ireland will once more be called upon to vote. This will be the accumulation of a troubling few months at Stormont filled with scandal: the shock resignation of a Deputy First Minister, the refusal of a grant scheme meant to benefit the preservation of the Irish language, and a First Minister who has tried to blame her mistakes on anyone but herself. Yet it is just a small part of the turmoil that is spreading across the UK. With Article 50 on the brink of being enacted, these are changing times, and no one seems to be able to make any firm plans as to how Brexit is supposed to take shape.

By the time you are reading this however, the world will have turned their eyes onto one event and one man: the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. He is the mascot for what happens when people full of fear and a lack of information, fuelled by right-wing propaganda, vote for a billionaire who makes radical promises for drastic change. It doesn’t seem to matter that he has no political experience, a complete lack of control when it comes to his Twitter account, and six bankruptcies to his name.

So how can we, as artists, protest? On the 30th November, 2016, I saw Kate Tempest perform her new album Let them Eat Chaos (a blend of rap, hip-hop and spoken word), to a rapt audience in the Empire Music Hall, Belfast. Hers was a rallying cry, sweeping through the crowd until everyone was stamping their feet, whooping and cheering and chanting along with her anthem to “wake up and love more”.

Can the poets and painters, the dreamers, the sculptors and musicians and actors, really make that much of a difference?  I’ve always known that art was important, that it meant something, that it could change the world. But art as a political statement – that wasn’t something that I did. I never put personal views into any of my work. Not because it was too private, I’ll gladly tell anyone who I vote for, my religious (or lack of) beliefs if they just ask, but I was always terrified of getting it wrong. Sounding ignorant is the fear of many writers. I can’t count how many times I’ve told burgeoning poets that their work does not sound childish, that it doesn’t matter if there are no sneaky references to Homer, that it is their work, and they should read it to an audience to learn and grow from the experience. Yet for myself, stepping out of my comfort zone of the small things, the pastoral, family and home and it’s comforts, is like holding up a big sign and asking for debate.  For questions that I might not be able to answer such as “what do you think should happen?”.

Now however, everything is different. We have seen how one strong voice can change the balance of power, how the votes of the masses really do make a difference, and it’s not always the sort of difference that we need. If we, as artists, don’t talk about this at a local level, how then can we expect anyone else, with perhaps a larger platform and audience, to do the same? This is my first step. I think that Trump is ridiculous. I think that Brexit is a disaster. I think that we need to give more support to Syrian refugees. I think that Global warming is the first thing that gets brushed under the carpet when a “more important” issue comes along. I am not a politician, or an expert in economics or the environment, and I don’t know what should happen. All I can say is that so much of what I believed would never change has changed, and that if it can change for the worst then I’m determined to do whatever I can in changing it for the better.

When looking at the news headlines on hard Brexit and building walls, it seems like we have been catapulted into the dystopia of 1984. “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” But this isn’t a novel. There is no Thought Police, at least not yet, and we can still make our opinions heard. No matter what these global issues are, everything eventually comes down to the man on the street. Art can change that. It has the power to resonate within us, to voice something that cannot be voiced, to make people everywhere understand what is happening to the world around them.

So make your art. It can travel so much farther than the end of the street, or a dozen likes on a Facebook post. Make crazy, controversial, angry, wholesome, powerful, art. Paint and write and sculpt and perform. Let the world know exactly what you think.

Wake up and love more.

Lesley Martin, January 2017

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