I have a weakness for protest art. I’m one of the few remaining fans of Phil Ochs, arguably one of the greatest protest singers of all time. Sixty years ago, he had a friendly rivalry with Bob Dylan. To our generation, he’s virtually unknown.
Ochs called himself a “topical singer.” As topical as they once were, his songs “Santo Domingo,” “Talking Vietnam Blues,” and “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon” just don’t play as well today as they did in the sixties and seventies. Dylan famously told Ochs, “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.” I disagree. Phil Ochs was, to my mind, the most talented folksinger of his generation.
Still, Phil Ochs didn’t win a Nobel Prize. I wouldn’t call him “obscure,” but he certainly lacks Dylan’s staying power. It’s telling that his two most enduring songs have, on the surface, nothing to do with politics. The first, “Changes,” is a classic love song, but the second is more interesting. Thanks to Joan Baez, “There But for Fortune” outlived the rest of Ochs’ work. He doesn’t mention Vietnam, organized labor, or the Kennedys—for Ochs, a rare feat. What he does do, though, is remarkable. Read the first verse:
Show me a prison, show me a jail,
Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale
And I’ll show you a young man with many reasons why
And there but for fortune, may go you or I.
This is Ochs’ case against mass incarceration: radical empathy. Most left-of-center artists feel pressure to make art that “speaks truth to power.” But the same “truth” spoken ten times over has less power than a single experience made beautiful. Art can profoundly affect us in ways that a formal argument can’t, and the best art speaks truth outside of time—truth that resonates with the powerful and the powerless alike. “There But for Fortune” isn’t a typical protest song, but it is a brilliant political statement.
As an artist, you have a choice to make. Do you reject the political for the personal? Or do you write a poem about tax reform? For me, the answer lies somewhere in between.
The first problem is that of art’s longevity. Works too explicitly wedded to their sociopolitical context—e.g., ninety-five percent of the music of Phil Ochs—can be dismissed as products of their time. But look at Picasso’s “Guernica.” “Guernica” was a protest against the twentieth-century fascism of Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, but it was also something more. “Guernica” endures because it was a protest against political violence itself, a protest that is just as painfully affecting today as it was in 1937. Great art can make a case against a specific system, regime, or individual, but it needs to be anchored in the time-transcendent. Effecting change in the long run requires thinking beyond the here and now. That may mean presenting human suffering, graphically, as it is. For a different artist, that may mean painting a vision of the world as it could be: the depiction of an ideal. Both approaches have better odds of impacting future generations than a poem about “the Wall” or a picture of Trump’s decapitated head.
In an ideal world, we’d strike a balance between works of art made for a specific context and works of art made to last. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for art that speaks to a particular political moment. Ai Weiwei’s “Law of the Journey,” for instance, is a piece of protest art that works. The piece is inflatable and impermanent, but that impermanence makes it no less important. Ten years from now, the global refugee crisis may be behind us, but now, in this moment, its message needs to be heard. The same could be said of the best war photographs, images that force us to engage with their subjects, to feel—in a limited sense—what they feel. We vote as much with our hearts as with our minds, and central to art’s political power is its ability to build empathy. Making a case for launching a missile strike or cutting the social safety net isn’t easy when you’ve looked into the eyes of the person on the other side. The longevity problem aside, great protest art does just that. That being said, of-the-moment protest art often misses precisely this opportunity.
Which brings me to my next point: the problem of art’s depth and reach. If the goal is to change hearts and minds, conventional, sign-at-a-rally protest art probably won’t do it. Seeing “Tax the Rich” painted on a wall in Clarion Alley won’t sell anyone on taxing the rich. Protest art isn’t coy about its intentions; you know exactly what’s coming. If your politics precede your art, you’ve lost a potentially receptive audience from the get-go. If your art can hold its own as art, you have the chance to reach an audience that might not hear you otherwise. You also have the chance to make a far more compelling point.
In the 2011 film The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick follows a dysfunctional Texas family through the 1950s. (He also covers the Big Bang, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, and life in 21st-century downtown Houston, but that’s beside the point.) Malick’s moving depiction of the family feels so real that we can’t help but love them as they are. It’s a broken family, but it’s a human family. The father tells the mother this when he loses his job: “They’re closing the plant. They gave me a choice. No job. Or transfer to a job nobody wants. I never missed a day of work. Tithe every Sunday…” Heartbreaking. The Tree of Life isn’t protest art, but notice how you feel when you watch a man thrown on the street after a decade of—at least professionally—doing everything right. Art has the unique potential to reach a new audience, to teach it through beauty and empathy to imagine a better world. In art that presents itself as political and nothing more, this potential goes squandered.
Art can be a place to explicitly demand change, but that demand can’t overshadow the art itself—even if it’s defining. As much as I love a good protest song, I want our generation’s political art to go farther and last longer than “Talking Vietnam Blues.” It’s the difference between a snappy slogan about universal healthcare and a poem about the lives it could save. You can make a clear and convincing political statement without compromising your creative vision. If anything, it’s creative vision that makes political art powerful. Art can move us in ways that political rhetoric alone cannot: take advantage of it.