This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared on February 24 in the Occupied Chicago Tribune, the newspaper backing Occupy Chicago.
Despite brutal forced evictions of Occupy camps across the United States late last year, the movement for the interests of the 99% against the 1% is still going strong.
Across the country, it is opposing forced evictions, organising for workers' rights and against corporate giants such as Monsanto and planning huge nationally coordinated protests and actions. [Read more of Green Left's coverage of the Occupy movement.]
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A revolution is never purely political. Huge alterations to laws, institutions, and officials are rarely spontaneous but rather are responsive, the confirmation of a seismic shift in attitudes about the status quo.
A dogma is toppled only when long-gestating changes to a society’s social and political culture ready the people to assert their power. Artists play a pivotal ― and multifaceted ― role in this transformation.
The Occupy movement has seen an outpouring of creative support; its earliest, perhaps, a call from the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, masters in the art of critical satire if not that of considerate organising.
Physical support followed in cities worldwide, and in affinity groups like Occupy Writers, a web database of more than 3000 sympathetic authors that includes Occupy-related pieces from well-known names like Judith Butler, Ursula Le Guin and Lemony Snicket.
Graham Nash and David Crosby, veterans of the ’60s anti-war movement, have reprised old classics for protesters in Liberty Square. Musicians expected and unexpected ― from Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco to Miley Cyrus ― have penned tunes inspired by and in support of the movement.
And while Third Eye Blind’s “If There Ever Was A Time” is unlikely to alter public sentiment in the way that, say, “Ohio” did after the Kent State massacre, it contributes to the shift that makes widespread change possible.
By tagging the Occupy movement with relevant cultural markers, these figures, and their diverse works, are able to translate and elevate revolutionary ideas. The act of creation forces society to evolve.
In making tangible and memorable the abstract ideas that underpin huge shifts in social consciousness, artists, from their unique position in society, instigate, inspire, and even immortalise the events of a revolution while in some sense remaining free of attachments.
“They can serve it, be a voice of it, an impetus for it, but they must remain independent,” says Candide Jones, a member of Occupy Winston-Salem and assistant director of Wake Forest University Press, a big publisher of Irish poetry in North America.
“Artists live on the edge at the same time as they are in the middle of everything. They are the canaries in the coalmine, the first ones to catch a whiff when things are starting to stink.”
In the years preceding the Irish Civil War, artists were the driving force, inflaming passions and, at times, leading on the battlefield “a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other”.
The 1916 Easter Rising against British rule culminated with the execution of writers (and leaders) Padraic Pearse and Thomas MacDonough, but the revolutionary Sinn Fein party it galvanised persists today.
Occupy Chicago has plans to create a habitat for resistance-minded artists in the city. The fledgling Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective (OCRAC), seeks to provide an independent, alternative outlet for artists frustrated or stymied by the modern culture industry, says Alex Billet, a member of the Occupy Chicago Arts and Recreation Committee.
“Culture is a right, not a privilege,” says Billet, a sentiment he says unites the collective’s founders.
Already operating online, OCRAC formally launched on February 24 at the Wicker Park Arts Center, a multi-disciplinary artist-directed community centre.
OCRAC is planning events that include a celebration of International Women’s Day and a remembrance of Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia last September.
For Billet, art and social upheaval are inexorably linked: “The anti-racist and pro-union struggles of the 1930s ushered in the songs of Woody Guthrie or the Almanac singers [and] the art of Ben Shahn.”
He points to the relationship between the iconic music, theatre, and film of the 1960s and the black power, anti-war, and civil rights movements of the period.
Long-time activist Mike Kalas says the convergence of art and activism is essential and natural. “The activists need more art in their lives; the artists need more activism in their lives,” he says, “A happy medium.”
Members of the Chicago jazz group The Vincent Davis Quartet emphasise the importance of the mutual bonds of common struggle. They highlight boycotting certain venues as an effective way of utilising their social capital.
It is Billet's hope that OCRAC will give Chicago’s cultural workers another tool through which to raise their voice.
Teresa Veramendi, a founding member of OCRAC and star of the critically well-received play, Occupy My Heart: A Revolutionary Christmas Carol, has high hopes for the coming months.
Veramendi views the stage as a place to humanise and make tangible the struggles of the 99%.
Veramendi plans to incorporate the intersect of art and protest into another project: large-scale street theatre planned for #ChicagoSpring demonstrations on April 7.
“I want to democratise the truth about what happened to us,” she says, referring to her planned work in which pods of actors working in the street will reconstruct individual threads of the financial crisis before joining with the audience in a huge rising.
“The point of performance is this connection,” she says. “It’s the electricity in the air.”
The same could be said for revolution.
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