I believe in the power of art. But my belief is a little unconventional. It’s true, I know, that art can be uplifting, and you don’t need to convince me that art can offer personal consolation and intense, indescribable pleasure. But I’ve come to believe that art has a social power that goes well beyond these personal experiences.
Many of us probably believe that artists need the protection of democratic societies. But I believe that the opposite is at least equally true. Democracies need the protection of artists—and specifically, unpopular, difficult, challenging artists.
This unconventional belief of mine has a history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vast numbers of people first won the right to vote. At the same time, there was a huge explosion in education and technology, which led to a new mass audience: now just about everyone had access not only to books and newspapers, but to photography, radio, and the movies.
Suddenly, it was possible to envision a genuinely democratic society. But what seemed like great progress also brought with it a new threat. With the rise of mass media, it became easy to imagine that you belonged to a huge and homogeneous national majority. And it became possible to think, too, that anyone who didn’t subscribe to dominant tastes and values was a crazy outsider, someone whose choices didn’t and couldn’t matter. In other words, these newly democratized societies could silence and belittle minority voices with surprising ease.
It was in this context that a new kind of art emerged. Avant-garde artists scorned mass culture because they saw it as manipulating the public into sharing increasingly homogenized, passive views. And so they decided to become deliberate, permanent outsiders—constantly provoking the dominant culture, criticizing it, refusing to conform. This was often a brave and risky act: when fascism was on the rise in the 1920s and when McCarthyism spread in the 1950s, free speech was threatened and calls to unanimity and a common culture seemed ready to quell all marginal perspectives, but avant-garde artists continued to stand for the value of nonconformity.
Most historians argue that the avant-garde ended decades ago. But the *spirit* of the avant-garde is still very much alive today. Many artists still deliberately defy pressures to unanimity and conformity. And when they challenge mainstream values, they’re still routinely attacked, and charged with offensiveness, unruliness, and inaccessibility.
I’ve always felt like an outsider myself. As the daughter of a Quaker mother and a Jewish father, in a family that moved from country to country when I was kid, I never belonged anywhere. From playground bullies to pep rallies, majority rule always felt oppressive and deadening to me. Today, on a larger scale, I worry that democratic societies can’t guarantee freedom unless they go out of their way to remember to welcome minority voices, however quirky or marginal. So every time artists challenge dominant values, they’re testing the promise of democracy itself. And that’s why I believe in the power of art.
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