Widening Democratic Communities

DH Lawrence calls art “a sort of subterfuge” with “two great functions. First it provides an emotional experience. And then, if we have the courage of our own feelings, it becomes a mine of practical truth”. Art, then, is something to experience and something to learn from. It can teach about the artist, the culture they come from, and the experiences they have had. A piece of art may cause the audience to inwardly reflect and question things that seemed to already be answered. The artist’s goal is to communicate with the audience, to make them react but to also evoke empathy, so they can understand what practical truth is under the subterfuge.

Empathy is vital to a democracy as well. Understanding the feelings of others on an issue will make debate more respectful and decisions fair to all sides. Opposing sides will understand each other better by comprehending the feelings that motivate the other perspective. To not empathize with others is to dismiss their perspective and prioritize one’s own. The founding fathers spoke highly of democratic values, but dismissed the perspectives of black people, women, and the poor. These groups were excluded from the political process that would dictate their lives. Without empathy there is now possibility for equality.

Arts ability to make an audience empathize with an artist, an issue, or a perspective can strengthen a democracy by educating. Lauret Savoy writes in her book Trace that “Democracy lies within ever widening communities”. By including more perspectives, a democracy gets closer to the ideal and better serves its citizens. However, art can also be threatening to those in power when made by marginalized folks. In Blood, Bread, and Poetry Adrienne Rich describes the American perception of art to be “falsely mystical…assumes a kind of supernatural inspiration, a possession by universal forces unrelated to questions of power and privilege”. Art and politics exist apart from each other, so different that they cannot be and should never be combined. “There was much shaking of heads if an artist was found ‘meddling in politics’ ; art was mystical and universal, but the artist was also, apparently, irresponsible and emotional and politically naive”. This way of thinking separates the art from the artist; it removes their experiences and perspective from the work they create. Rich believes political art can be a powerful tool,

Perhaps many white North Americans fear an overtly political art because it might persuade us emotionally of what we think we are “rationally’ against; it might get us on a level we have lost touch with, undermine the safety we have built for ourselves, remind us of what is better left forgotten

Langston Hughes’ poem Let America Be America Again is an ideal model of Rich’s explanation for political art and how it can illustrate a perspective. Hughes not only portrays his viewpoint but also the traditional, white, middle class perspective. The first few stanzas read like a dialogue between two people, one who is just realizing the deficiencies of American democracy and one who has only known these deficiencies. This may be read as if between a middle class white person and a black person, or native American, a woman, or a poor person.

Let America be the dream the dreamer’s dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breath.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

This marginalized perspective is only acknowledged in the last two lines as a voice “that mumbles in the dark”. Adrienne Rich was critical of mainstream American culture for ignoring and rejecting these perspectives, but believed they could be taught through art. Hughes does just this by having the mainstream identify those on the fringes. This serves as a conscious shift to the perspective of the marginalized, those excluded from their own American dream. Hughes identifies them, “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-“. These are people who will be used by more privileged Americans to achieve their American dream.

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