Lately, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for a time I never knew. A time when everything was simple, in black and white, when good and evil were clearly defined. If such a time never existed, at least the world thought it did. Much as I love enlightened thought, it often feels like life would be easier if we could just blame all of our problems on communism. Yes, I’m feeling nostalgic for the 1950s and ’60s, when nothing was as perfect as it seemed, but at least everyone knew nothing was as perfect as it seemed. When you rebelled, you knew what you were rebelling against because there was a clear injustice.
And it’s not that I think there are no real injustices today – there are, and many of them carried out by our own government. It just feels like the people speaking up about injustice most loudly aren’t those who need the most help. Of course, as an artist, thoughts like these always connect back to art for me. Although it obviously wasn’t so clear to the people living through it, it feels like back then there was a clear association between art, free speech, youth, love, liberalism, openness, and intelligent thought. Because most of middle-class society was so closed-off and devoted to a false image of perfection, it was easier, at least, for us middle-class artistic youth, to know where to begin – be open, be free, be you.
In our culture, it seems we have almost the opposite problem. Rebelling against a culture of reality TV and talk radio, which enforces stereotypes in a much more hidden way, is a challenge. Take, for example, the Occupy Wall Street movement. The easiest comparison to the ’60s, as long as I’m making them, would be the civil rights movement, or perhaps the women’s rights movement or any push for greater equality during that time. I like to think that I wouldn’t have been one of those bitchy sweater-set girls from Hairspray who insisted that integration was unnatural or that a woman’s place was in the home. But to us, looking back on it, the conflict seems so clear – Good vs. Evil. Occupy Wall Street has no such clarity, and when I heard recently that Occupy L.A. had staged a protest during a local art event, I honestly didn’t know what to think. The ’60s, fight-for-equality part of me hears that Occupy was protesting the arrest of some people who did no more than draw in chalk on a sidewalk, and wants to go out there and join the fight. After all, as artists, isn’t it our job to defend free speech in its many artistic forms? Another part of me hears that the Occupiers instigated the conflict by throwing glass bottles at the police, and wonders if the majority protesters were fighting for anything, or simply stirring up trouble.
I suppose it just makes me wonder whether, back in the good, or at least old, days of legally-enforced racism, sexism, and homophobia, people thought the same sorts of things. “I’d be okay with these civil rights people if they had a goal instead of stirring up trouble for no reason,” I can imagine a Hairspray sweater-set girl saying. “They just haven’t done their research – they don’t even know how to go about integration or what it would do to this country. Besides, these protests are isolated and will never achieve anything.” Meanwhile, modern-day me replaces “civil rights” with “Occupy” and “integration” with “eliminating the fed,” and thinks the same thing. They’re not on the same level – one is a political tool that clearly enforced racism, while the other is an economic tool that, good or bad, can’t really be sad to “clearly” do anything – but the sentiment remains. “I would probably be okay with the violence if I thought it would achieve something worthwhile, but I don’t think it will.”
Of course, in the modern case, I don’t think it’s that most people disagree with Occupy Wall Street – they literally just don’t know what Occupiers are trying to do or even if the movement has any unified purpose beyond expressing general discontent. At least, I know that’s my problem. As much as I love the idea of a grassroots organization making a change, it worries me that people, using the name of Occupy as a slogan, could set out to an event to demand artists’ rights, and end up making it impossible for any of the artists at that event to sell their work. That sort of disconnect between intention and result doesn’t inspire confidence, and almost seems counter-productive. Wouldn’t it have been more helpful to spend that effort getting a good lawyer to defend the people arrested for their chalk drawings? Yet simultaneously, I worry when I hear people automatically dismiss the movement, since it would take more then poor planning for me to believe we should suppress anyone’s freedom of speech. As much as I may disagree with Occupy’s execution, I am an artist, after all, and I will defend anyone’s right to draw in chalk on a sidewalk without being arrested for it.