Uplift the People?

While reading the Robert Rosenstone biography of the romantic revolutionary John Reed (upon whom the Warren Beatty movie “Reds” was based) I came upon this passage written by James Oppenheim back in 1921. The passage is a commentary on the role of the artist seeking publication:

No matter what you have to say there is a way to say it.
…Don’t offend people’s moral scruples and religious creeds
Keep out of politics and sex and socialism,
Don’t be highbrow, don’t end up in tragedy-
In short, uplift the people
.

Sounds familiar, and still the credo of most galleries, publishing houses and all but the hip-hop/rap end of the commercial recording industry. But what if you are of the persuasion that catering to peoples’ complacencies, and indulging their half-conscious relationship to a world that is teetering on madness and self-destruction is not part of the artist’s mandate. I particularly take issue with the phrase “uplift the people.” Who the hell am I, or any artist for that matter, to have the audacity to believe they have the power, or are under any obligation to ‘uplift the people.’

This is not to say it hasn’t happened. Beethoven certainly ‘uplifted’ the people with his musical invocations of majestic idealism. Renoir uplifted the people with evocations of color and conviviality. Walt Whitman uplifted the people with populist affirmations of the future. But that was then and this is now.

None of these artists were presented with the dismal facts about the chronic environmental and social-economic abuse that "the people" have allowed themselves to become victims and witness to. None of these artists could foresee the decimation of the life-sustaining factors that has re-characterized this earth as an ensuing caldron of congestion, inequality, interpersonal and social chaos. Modern history has demonstrated a murderous political propensity that continually moves toward grander and more inglorious proportions. Now that we’ve nearly butchered ourselves into oblivion via two fetid world wars (and then some), we find ourselves currently well on the way to the annihilation of a whole host of other species and are doing a bang-up job on that score as well.

‘Uplift the people?’ Hell, let the people uplift themselves. The most a real artist can do today is tell the truth as he or she sees it. Maybe then the ‘people’ can get off their cynical, self-contented keesters and take some resposibility for what is becoming pretty much a farce in this country...our so called democracy. One can only hope that portraying things as they are, as unpleasant as that might be will ‘uplift’ the people into doing something about themselves and the wretched conditions that are allowing the wholeness of life on this earth to be assaulted and perpetually betrayed. ‘Uplift the people?’ Hell, let the people uplift themselves. The most a real artist can do today is tell the truth as he or she sees it. Maybe then the ‘people’ can get off their cynical, self-contented keesters and take some resposibility for what is becoming pretty much a farce in this country...our so called democracy. One can only hope that portraying things as they are, as unpleasant as that might be will ‘uplift’ the people into doing something about themselves and the wretched conditions that are allowing the wholeness of life on this earth to be assaulted and perpetually betrayed. ‘Uplift the people?’ Hell, let the people uplift themselves. The most a real artist can do today is tell the truth as he or she sees it. Maybe then the ‘people’ can get off their cynical, self-contented keesters and take some resposibility for what is becoming pretty much a farce in this country...our so called democracy. One can only hope that portraying things as they are, as unpleasant as that might be will ‘uplift’ the people into doing something about themselves and the wretched conditions that are allowing the wholeness of life on this earth to be assaulted and perpetually betrayed.

Asking artists or politicians or even philosophers to ‘uplift’ us into the higher realms of idealism is like putting a child atop his father’s shoulders, going for a stroll and then claiming that the kid is learning to walk. As long as ‘the people’ continue to look for avatars and "leadership" they will fall back on their own sorry derrieres waiting for someone or some thing to ‘uplift’ them into conciousness and action. History has shown such collective passivity to be its own worst enemy.

Perhaps, when ‘the people’ realize that they are as much the problem as anything else then maybe we’ll have the beginnings of something we can believe in. Until then, I will rant, rave and rage with a clear creative conscience. If it amuses the public in any way then so be it. But frankly, I’m not likely to be ‘uplifting’ anything or anybody besides the integrity of my own expression. Uplift the people? I’m lucky just to lift my own sorry butt out of bed each morning!

Marc Twang

 

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