The Power and Pleasure You Can Unleash When Your Inner Artist Joins Your Inner Activist

What would happen, do you think, if we unleashed our most creative selves as we’re considering what action to take to right the wrongs in this world?

Too often, we think of artists as freaks of nature. Fact is: we are all artists. We are born that way. Look at the stuff you drew at age three. It’s brilliant.

For most of us, shortly after age three, society, mean teachers, older siblings, and our own inner soul-crusher convinced us that the way we make art is inadequate, stupid, embarrassing, and so we left art-making to those who for some reason refused to listen to the mean voices within and without. But here’s the bad news: the price of kicking our creativity to the side may be the end of the world.

What makes me crazy about Oscar week is that it feels like it’s intentionally designed to make us, the viewing public, distinguish ourselves from the ones who should be allowed to create, the geniuses, the true artists. But Selma, one of this year’s Oscar nominees, tells a crucial narrative about unleashing the artist in every activist that we desperately need to hear and heed.

Selma is the story of a group of people collectively creating and performing the most powerful “ethical spectacle” they can think of in order to move American hearts and minds to support Civil Rights. Stephen Duncombe, co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism and author of the thrilling book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, defines “ethical spectacle” as an action that ravishingly “illuminates and dramatizes real-world power dynamics and social relations that otherwise tend to remain hidden in plain sight.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues knew that the only way they could get Americans to support the Voting Rights Act was to viscerally render inequality in the consciousness of those who had not experienced it firsthand. These activists did not go to art school, yet the devastating images of their protests in Selma that tore through mainstream media — the peaceful marchers brutalized by police on horseback during the first march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge and the determined multitude that returned to march again — were the direct outcome of the organizers’ aesthetic strategy.

And it worked.

Of course, the lesson to be learned from Selma is not that the way to advance every social cause is to put on a good march. Because people think they’ve seen it all before, most marches don’t even make the news today.

The lesson I am hoping that we do learn from Selma is that when we unleash our inner artists and create “ethical spectacles” so surprising, so fresh, so disturbing that they tell the whole story in one striking image or scene, we can capture the public imagination and inspire the public will to change the course of history.

At Sundance this past month, I saw two soon-to-be-released films that show how we can save lives and save the world when we marry our creativity with our activism.

Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger is a study in “ethical spectacle.” Kramer is an artist whose outrage incited AIDS activism in this country in the 1980s, humanized the way the medical industrial complex treats suffering people in clinical drug trials, and expedited the discovery of the medication that saved Kramer’s life and the lives of millions around the globe who are now living with AIDS. In the film, Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases since AIDS first became part of our public consciousness, states: “There’s medicine before Larry Kramer and medicine after Larry Kramer.”

What Kramer and a host of artists and activists in New York (including myself) did was take art and theater into the streets. From putting a rather large condom on the home of the notoriously anti-gay, anti-sex-education North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to throwing ashes of our loved ones onto the White House lawn, we expressed our outrage in ways that the news and the public could not ignore.

In another Sundance documentary, Racing Extinction, film director Louie Psihoyos and his environmental activist friends are seen projecting gorgeous images of the animals we have lost or are likely to lose to extinction on buildings across the nation, including the entire exterior of the United Nations building in New York. The result is breathtakingly beautiful; it stops crowds, gets constant news attention, goes viral, and drives people in droves to sign onto the activists’ education and action campaign to save dying species.

As I write these words, I am sitting on a bench in the Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as thousands of people stream by me to admire the paper cut-outs the old guy made while lying in bed. Over and over, I hear people saying: “I could do that” and I find myself wanting to cry out: “That’s right! You can!”

So I say to you, to myself, to all who believe in freedom: think of something that outrages or excites you, a change you pray might be made in the world. Now, with friends, in your journal, on Pinterest, or with scissors and construction paper, spend two hours imagining what kind of spectacle you might dream up to capture our imagination, move our hearts, make us care, make us act differently, make us act up. Then, with that same group of friends or flying solo if that’s your style, make it happen.

The fact is that our lives depend on all of us bringing all we have to our justice-seeking movements, including our creativity. And there’s a fringe benefit to marrying art-making to our activism. When we unleash our creative spirits, when we banish those soul-crushing voices that tell us that we’re not creative, we can unlock all kinds of joy and soul liberation. I could use a little bit more of that in my life and activism. Couldn’t you?