When I was growing up, the Cold War was still on. That was our generation's constant existential threat - no matter what you do, the world could end in a blink for stupid reasons beyond your control. Nothing to be done about it, carry on.
There were plenty of things I didn't like about the world as it was, but I always tended to think about the world as it could be. From an early age, it was art, music, books, and film that made me believe in the future. That there were artists on the case, pushing back against the status quo, offering new ideas and better ways to be. While they couldn't fix the world per se, their very existence was reassuring and their work was empowering, shaping me in countless ways.
As I've moved through my adult life of photography, music-making, teaching, travel, and parenting, I've watched the steady erosion of the value of art and the status of artists. Ask any artist increasingly asked to work for free or for "exposure". Notice how all the art-house cinemas are gone. Check how much Spotify pays musicians. Ask a poet if they have health insurance or child care.
In my lifetime, artists and musicians have gone from idealistic rebels operating on their own terms to being subservient to a system that co-opts and devalues them. Maybe I'm naive, but I can remember being shocked the first time I saw cultural heroes in Gap ads or a Super Bowl halftime show. I looked in vain for at least a sense of inner irony on their faces, like they were playing the game but still knew.
There's never been an easy time to be an artist. But here we are in a time when most working artists are increasingly precarious, financially hobbled, their creative potential and intentions often no match for the demands modern life places on them.
And we are asking them to step up and save us? Save the world? How does that work exactly?
What does it even mean? What is the role of the artist in the face of the climate challenge? Art can't take carbon from the air, pass legislation, stop deforestation, protect biodiversity, or stem the tide of plastic in the oceans.
I don't have the answers, and most artists I've met aren't sure either. But exploring that question is a big part of Viaduct. For starters, this moment requires a major culture shift and a radical new relationship with nature, as true allies. I'm going to do my best to elevate those who can elevate us. Art that creates stories that take us forward, future folk tales. Ideas for living in new ways. Truth, community, beauty, resilience, humility. Maybe art can start to get us back on track as humans.
What else will? Money, politics, sports, mega-churches, reality TV?
This is where art steps in with superpowers. Maybe art is more like an acupuncturist than a doctor - using mystical ability to unblock energies that can heal and give us purpose.
As anyone paying attention knows, the climate crisis is here, and the reality is that it will get worse. We're already in the resilience phase. But anything we can do to mitigate it, to any degree, will help and is better than the alternative. Governments, businesses, grass-roots groups, and individuals all have roles they must play. We need all of it. There is no time for blame games, and don't get me started on those who dismiss individual actions.
As we scramble to salvage the future we want, despair is not an option; art is in the stubborn-hope business. For a period of time after 9/11, I remember wondering if art mattered anymore, especially my own. In our current crisis, I wonder if anything matters more.
Doubt the soft power of art? Why are artists among the first ones repressed in dictatorships? Imagine being behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s and hearing the Beatles. Imagine being the young Beatles in drab postwar Britain and hearing American R&B. Imagine being a black American blues singer or jazz musician or photographer under segregation and Jim Crow. Imagine the slave songs. Imagine the Renaissance emerging from the Dark Ages. Imagine the artist-monks, the illuminators, putting the first ink on pages of what would become the Book of Kells, and what that would have meant to people living in constant fear, disease, and insecurity.
What else has ever carried us up and over?
Starting this week, I'll be sending out a regular email newsletter (the plan is once a week) compiling pictures and words about what artists are already doing to make a difference and direct their creative energy at the most important crisis we've ever faced. Hopefully it will inspire others to do the same, and help place art at the center of difficult conversations about where we're heading.
Watch this space, we're saddling up. Check out the About page to learn more about how Viaduct got to this point.
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Viaduct Arts founder Bill Crandall is a photographer, musician, educator, and organizer in Takoma Park MD, USA