This past week I got a chance to visit with my brother-in-law, a former New York City musician and visual artist transplanted to Taos, New Mexico. Scott told me about a recent meeting of Taos artists where all the attention was directed to drawing more tourists and getting them to buy more art.
Scott’s current project is called Beautiful Midden. For decades, the people of Taos county have dumped their solid waste into gorges connected to the Rio Grande. They then use the old refrigerators and TVs for target practice, sending lead bullets into the water table. Scott’s creative response has been to create art—and help local school kids create art—that calls attention to the landscape’s beauty and the environmental hazards of this dumping. Right now he’s creating a huge sculpture of dangling, painted woks that will become a shooting target at the gorge, but it will collect the bullets to be safely disposed of.
Scott’s reaction to the Taos artists’ meeting was impassioned: Shouldn’t art be of service?
I found his question compelling, especially as it’s not one I ever hear writers ask. The literary world, much like those fine artists displaying their work in Taos plaza galleries, focuses its attention on craft—on rendering works of beauty and balance and wholeness. Literary writers serve art. They do not serve people, or the needs of their community, or social justice issues, or divinity.
I’m quite curious about why this is so. One reason, I believe, is that we writers are terrified of “being didactic.” As soon as questions of justice or social issues enter a story, the literary world dismisses it as “having an agenda.” Recently I was freed from this obsessive concern by Mitali Perkins, a young adult novelist, who said, “Stories by nature are essentially didactic. It’s the nature of story to have a moral. Stories that don’t work because they’re didactic are bad stories.”
Works of literature that intentionally avoid issues or morals convey a message regardless: They teach that we aren’t responsible for addressing injustice, that we can remain neutral in the face of immorality.
The prejudice against stories that grapple with social issues is misguided; it’s really a prejudice against deliberate social engagement. It assumes art made in the context of community and landscape and history is de facto lesser than art made in isolation. The painting of the gorge at sunset, rendered in exquisite color, is more worthy than Scott’s quirky shooting sculpture located in the real gorge beside hollowed out dishwashers and rusty truck beds, where locals come for entertainment and to release anger from the realities of poverty.
We don’t have to choose between good stories and social, moral engagement. We can have our cake and eat it too. Stories can be fine art, and they can serve humanity. Perhaps they even should.
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You’re invited to the Hannah, Delivered publication party, this Saturday at 7 p.m. at The Loft Literary Center. I’d love to see you there!