Ashton Kutcher recently spoke at the Senate about child trafficking and the state of slavery in the world today. Recognizing that the boom of the internet comes with considerable casualties (namely that the sale of sex slaves has largely moved to seedy corners of the internet) Kutcher co-founded THORN, a foundation that creates software that enables law enforcement with the information they need to catch the sex traffickers and bring justice to their victims.

Kutcher spoke at length about the “trolls” that blanch when they see a celebrity connected with a political cause, even one as uncontroversial as the sale of children sex slaves (have I walked into an alternative universe, or don’t we all still agree that that’s bad?)

“This is about the time – when I start talking about politics – that the internet trolls start telling me to stick to my day job. So I’d like to talk about my day job…we build software to fight human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children. That’s our core mission.”

Kutcher was hitting on an important point, and the fact that he had to demonstrates something about a profound lack of understanding when it comes to art and its place in the world.

A common refrain – be it when Beyoncé performed Formation at the Super Bowl, when Kendrick Lamar addressed mass incarceration at the Grammys, when the cast of Hamilton addressed Mike Pence, when Meryl Streep (and literally everyone else) spoke out against Donald Trump – is that artists should stay in their lane.

If anyone says this, I immediately understand that they don’t know what art is, why it’s here, or what purpose it has served since human beings could scrawl it on walls.

Art expresses what is often incommunicable

It’s not a mistake that the Julius Caesar burned the library of Alexandria, that Hitler burned books, or that America kept black people from reading or writing for 240 years.

Maya Angelou noted:

When I was seven and a half, I was raped…later that night, the police suggested that the rapist had been kicked to death. I thought that I had caused the man’s death because I had spoken his name. So I stopped talking for five years. Now, to show you how out of evil there can come good…in those five years, I read every book in the black school library…I memorized Shakespeare, whole plays…Poe, all the poetry…

When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say, and many ways in which to say what I had to say.

That’s what art can do. Art allows the voiceless to take voice, and it is a power unto itself for speaking about the times in which we live. Art is way to meaningfully collate human experiences into one transcendent package, so when you say that artists don’t rightfully have anything of value to say about the current state of the world, villains rejoice and dreams die.

Art is resistance

For any of you whose jimmies were rustled that the Hamilton cast noted the irony of Mike Pence attending a musical with the subtitle “The Benefits of Immigrants” and then running an administration intent on getting rid of ALL of them, I don’t know where you’ve been for…the whole time people have been making art. Hate to break it to you, but speaking truth to power and criticizing nobility is kinda art’s thing. 

If you don’t believe me about that, just look at one artist you may have heard of – William Shakespeare.   Pick literally anything Shakespeare ever wrote and you will find a plethora of ways that man is bringing the thunder down on the folly of nobility.

The line “A pox on both your houses” in Romeo and Juliet isn’t a throwaway line – it’s Shakespeare noting how dumb royal feuds are. Shakespeare also, though he was English, often set his plays in distant lands, like Italy, so that the play would appear to be satirizing a country other than England (even though they were often totally satirizing England.) It’s also not super subtle that Antony and Cleopatra both end up dead at the end of…well, Antony and Cleopatra. 

You don’t have to look hard for this stuff, you just have to think before you click “Post” on some contrived mantra about how celebrity worship is destroying America.

The Delegitimization of Art

Delegitimizing art comes in many forms.

  • “Ugh, I don’t know why you like to watch a bunch of rich, white people congratulate each other!”
  • “Are you sure you’re gonna be able to get a job with that?”
  • “Ugh, you’re sad that David Bowie died? That’s so stupid.”
  • “Actors are just trained monkeys, and they need to just stay in their lane.” (Actual Youtube comment I read.)

But I say that if everyone is willing to hop down the throat of rap music and rock ‘n’ roll every time some Midwestern kid decides to shoot up his school, or blame sexuality in movies for pandemic rates of teen pregnancy, then you don’t get to decide that art doesn’t matter when it says something you don’t like.

Also, you can take that attitude right back where you found it, because I work at a summer camp where every single day, I try to tell kids that art matters and specifically that their art matters, and I’ll be damned if they grow up to be brilliant artists one day just to have internet nobodies tell them that being an artist excludes you from the group of people who can talk about injustice in the world. If anything, being an artist is a downright certification in that subject.

What did you think artists were doing before, anyway? Did you think Picasso was a finger-painter that just “stayed in his lane” or did he paint “La Guernica” to highlight tragedies of the Spanish Civil War? Did you think N.W.A, creators of a song called “F*** The Police” were…not in the business of making political statements?

Art is, and always has been, about saying something. And if you don’t like what it’s saying, kindly go make your own. And keep it down. The Oscars are on.

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