Kurt Vonnegut was a pretty out-there guy in many respects. Read any of his classic books, like Slaughterhouse-Five—where Billy Pilgrim, survivor of the infamous Dresden firebombing becomes unstuck in time—and you’ll see that his brain worked in a special way. He wasn’t a writer of intense flourishes or fancy language. He even liked to give out the ending of a book at the beginning and then work towards it. His favourite protagonists were clumsy and mistake-prone—his hero the less-than-average man.
A quote of his always stuck with me, and when I produced art, often made me wonder if I was doing it right. He said: “I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”
Artistic types probably meant any number of things as the years progressed. In older times they might have been painters, like when Jacques-Louie David created The Death of Marat in 1793—a response to the murder of French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Or the French Revolution painting Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix. You could also look to The Raft of Medusa, by Theodore Gericault, depicting a shipwreck that, due to a captain’s incompetence, killed over a hundred passengers. One of the most famous works of this kind, and still relevant today, is Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, a monument to the anti-war movement.
In the world of writing we had satirical essays like Jonathan Swift’s 1729 work: A Modest Proposal, where Swift anonymously proposed that the Irish could unburden themselves of their poverty by selling their infants and children as food to rich. He even included some recipes. Hunter S. Thompson pulled a similar stunt to protest the Vietnam war.
Photography, film, and not to mention music (especially in the 70’s) likely replaced other forms of art as the dominant reactions to injustice. They documented war, political corruption and racial oppression. Painters still painted, and writers wrote—and together they with the other mediums formed a proactive buffer that allowed us to see larger dangers for what they were, before they were on top of us.
But the arts of late have gone crickets. You can almost mark the moment it occurred. The last musical group I can remember (pre-Trump, who has started to tickle the beast) to build a foundation off opposing societal malfeasance was Rage Against the Machine. Rap began with plenty of sociopolitical messaging. Science fiction and fantasy writers have often employed metaphors as vehicles for their messages, but everything lately feels very straightforward, if not commercial—no Orwell or Huxley to be found here.
The catalyst was social media. People have turned their attention away from creative forms of opposition (even as fuel for larger movements) and en masse vent their individual frustrations through Twitter and Facebook. And what they face in many cases is instant rebuttal, sometimes squashing protest before it can even begin—invalidating arguments with squabbling.
But the arts were a shout that couldn’t be silenced—a form of expression that governments and businesses couldn’t participate in (aside from propaganda, which is easily identified). Social media is only heard when it accumulates enough angry voices. Through it, an authoritarian head can also now wield millions of virulent, misinformed apostles, and the fight gets that much harder.
To get back to Kurt Vonnegut’s point, we have lost the arts as our canary. Instead, everyone has become a canary, and the poison can be anything of their choosing—often too many things, and not always the most important ones. The arts (even Banksy) become wall decor or pop-anthem, and social media wears the boxing gloves. Contrary to popular belief, though, social media hardly knows how to throw a punch. It can tap the big guy on the shoulder, but then spends the bout flashing memes.
That’s not to say the arts can’t still produce resistance or show us something in a way we hadn’t seen it before. And social media can help deliver that message to the masses, if we can focus our outward noise and turn it into music.
For further research on the previously mentioned band, a fun video to watch is this live Christmas performance broadcast on BBC. Rage Against the Machine was invited to play a few songs for BBC5, but was told that under no circumstances could they swear. As they’re want to do, at the 4:44 mark they responded in kind:
Header image credit: Daily Mail