Last night I attended my son’s high school’s Harlem Renaissance Night. Every one of his school’s Juniors was asked to create a work of art – be it musical, visual, or written – reflecting that time and place in American history. Wandering through this impromptu art gallery, I was reminded of that great Picasso quote: Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. How indeed? It can be especially challenging when you stand on the brink of adulthood and are reacquainted with the artist you already are via someone else’s idea of what you should make your art about. Doubly challenging when that subject matter is steeped in oppression, humanity’s long and futile experiment in the suppression of free will. Free will is like a balloon that cannot burst: squeeze the shape flat here, it will only inflate over there.
There was much earnestness from the children. They had been handed a very serious subject and they wanted to reflect that seriousness in their work. But it is very easy when writing or painting or singing about oppression to leave your audience feeling oppressed. We begin, of course, by reminding our audience that oppression exists. That is the necessarily unpleasant Step One. But then that all-important Step Two—the release from oppression.
Not so easy apparently. There is a great temptation in this step to divide the world into Good Guys (the oppressed) and Bad Guys (the oppressors). This, unfortunately, is no release at all, because it was only the mistaken idea that some people are fundamentally different from other people that caused the oppression in the first place.
Almost as tempting as it is to gripe about high school teachers and their well-intentioned artistic dictatorships. I returned home and unloaded on my wife, who had been spared the event. After a half-hour of this, she implored me to change the subject. “I’ll never get to sleep tonight if we keep talking about it.”
A wise woman, my wife. I needed a good night’s sleep myself. I had been kept awake recently by a reoccurring nightmare: a vision of myself trapped in the world by an unseen force. The more I sought this force to destroy it, the stronger it grew. How exhausting, this battle. What a welcome relief when I surrendered to the peace of sleep and the nightmare ends.
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