In Artistic Citizenship, Aria Fani examines Persian literary cultures, specifically in Afghanistan. For Fani, and for Persian peoples, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) ignited a heightened awareness of concepts of citizenship, homeland, and exile. In the absence of a centralized political body in Kabul, Persian poets expressed variegated narratives of what constituted Afghan “identity” and loyalty to the nation.
Poetry of Afghanistan maintains ancient roots. And for thousands of years in Afghanistan, various peoples and forms of poetic expression have been and continue to be sites of resistance and, therefore, artistic citizenship. One such form is the “landay.”
an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.
What happens to us when we actively engage as art-makers or art-takers? Who do we become?
Given the complexities of today’s political, social, and emotional landscapes, engaging with/through the arts is as important now more than ever. Why? “With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s easy to question the value of telling stories or making sculptures.” While some may be tempted to question the arts at times like these, we disagree. And so does Miguel Syjuco.
“Silence, it is said, implies complicity. But that’s only half the story. Silence also confirms oppression, because the ability to speak out is too often a luxury of the privileged.
The aggressive populism we see today seems to be a testament to people refusing to be silent – and rightly so. Our societies have largely failed to provide equally for all, and technology now gives us new avenues through which to be heard, and with which to rebel against repressive ideas and structures. New leaders have latched onto that and now seek to speak for us, even though many of them are rallying us crudely around fear and mistrust.”
Art making and art taking help us raise our voices to the level of consciousness. The arts confirm that we do not need to remain silent and complicit.
Pablo Picasso knew this all too well. That’s why he painted “Guernica.”
Violent hate crimes have surged around the world, including the U.S., where disgusting racist, homophobic, and misogynist language has become normalized in political speeches and on social media, where violence has become routine, and where free speech and other democratic freedoms are under threat.
These realities highlight the fact that what sustains democracies is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but also social norms and practices, individual and communal ethics, empathy, excellent public education systems, and peaceful protest, including “calling out” racism and other social injustices “loudly and by name.”
As the authors of the 27 chapters in Artistic Citizenship document, artists of all kinds around the world are putting their art-making to work for social “goods” by “calling out” and protesting anti-democratic and anti-human behaviors.
(Note: By “artists” we mean amateurs and professionals in all the arts, arts educators, and students involved in art-making for active social justice).
One example of a full-time arts activist is Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre
Guante is a hip-hop artist, a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, an educator, a writer, and a contributor to Artistic Citizenship. He has “performed for justice” widely in the U.S. and abroad—from the United Nations, to the Soundset Hip-Hop Festival, to countless colleges, universities, clubs, theaters, and rallies across the U.S. His performances have been featured on BBC Radio 6-Music, MSNBC, Upworthy, Everyday Feminism, and Button Poetry. And he facilitates community workshops that use the arts as jumping-off points for deeper conversations about identity, power, empathy, and agency.
Here are two examples of Guante’s performances that exemplify his commitment to challenging dominant narratives related to race and racism, and deconstructing traditional notions of masculinity:
Do arts educators have a civic responsibility to do more than talk-talk-talk about artistic “response-ability” and social justice in their journal articles and at conferences? Writing and face-to-face discussions are important, of course, which is why we applaud a 2017 initiative at Michigan State University titled “Musicking Equity: Enacting Social Justice Through Music Education.”
Hopefully, such conferences will actually lead to “enacting” social justice in the sense of actual participation in public contention, acting for social justice, doing it, performing it, and creating “ethical spectacles” of/for social justice.
When thinking of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s typical to reflect on the world’s great writers and past winners: Alice Munro, Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Octavio Paz, to name only a few. This year, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has won because, as the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said, Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Granting this award to Bob Dylan signifies important things. First, songs and their lyrics are as much poetic devices as “pure” poetry. This thinking dates back to ancient Greek poets, who recited their poetry to music. In fact, and because of this, ancient Greek poetry is not so much thought of as collections of “poems,” but as “songs.” In Greek times, the culture of poetry was the culture of song. Bob Dylan is being recognized for carrying forward this ancient tradition.
Also, and while the Academy recognizes Dylan’s contribution to the fields of folk, rock, pop music, and popular culture, this Nobel Prize signifies something important for artistic citizenship. Dylan’s songwriting oftentimes took an activist stance. Indeed, Dylan felt that songs could and would change the world. As David Yaffe notes, once Dylan got involved with CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), “he began writing songs about Emmett Till, Hattie Carroll, and James Meredith.” He created “words that would be belted out at the March on Washington by Peter, Paul, and Mary ‘How many years can some people exist until they’re allowed to be free.’” And while Dylan’s musical “art-ivism” ebbed and flowed throughout his career, his songs remain and continue to powerfully engage and transform the world.
Equally important, the Academy’s move shows that distinctions between so-called “high art” and “low art” are arbitrary categories that are no longer useful. Indeed, Dylan’s poetic songs engage in/with the world and do worldly work. “The times they are a changing,” sang Dylan. Yes, they have. Congratulations to Bob Dylan, poet of America for the world!
The arts are hubs of social, emotional, personal, and worldly interactions. Any values we derive from or experience through the arts occur because we engage in and feel the results/benefits of art making and art experiencing. So, “we make it true” that one or more values happen in/to us when we participate with the arts.
What values are possible? The chapters within this book yield a multitude of possibilities. And artistic citizenship is the concept we employ that connects and extends such possibilities. From illuminating public places to visionary activism through art-making to creating art that examines a world that isn’t but could be, artistic citizenship shows itself in a variety of ways.
What worlds are possible? Can art take us there? What gets in our way to create such worlds? Hear from one of our authors, Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: