When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge set out to “cleanse” the Cambodian people in the 1970’s, their targets were very specific. Not only did they take aim at the crippled and lame, but the educators, the social elite and those who had close ties to the West as well. In addition, to make sure they would not only gain but also maintain control of millions of people’s bodies and minds, they targeted and killed all of the artists.

I remember watching in horror a few months before the attacks of 9/11 as two ancient Buddha sculptures, which had been chiseled into the sandstone cliff’s of Afghanistan in the 3rd and 5th centuries, were packed with dynamite and exploded into a million tiny pieces of rubble. I’ll admit I didn’t know much at the time about the horrors happening in Afghanistan, the Taliban was something I was familiar with only in passing. But as I saw those beautiful works of art and religion crumble to the ground, a wave of pain and sorrow overtook me and I knew we were all in trouble.

Art can be a very dangerous thing. Tyranny requires a silencing of opposition, and art has been used throughout history as a sometime subtle, sometimes bold form of resistance. Even when a people are kept ignorant and uneducated, unable to read or write, art has given them not only an outlet for dissention, but also a way of discovering the differing points of view of others.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
John Keating

Any artist who tries something new, something different, who is honest and unguarded has my respect, whether I enjoy and appreciate the art form or not. Pushing the envelope, risking, is as much a part of the artistic expression to me as the end resulting art itself. Even when I find things distasteful, I generally respect an artist’s attempt at something new, as long as it’s done with complete honesty.

Does art have to inspire the entire world to be important or is effecting one person, one community enough? Great art does not have to alight a revolution of ideas but the potential for it should always remain and never be dismissed, especially by the artist himself. I have been witness to artists who dismiss their creations out of hand, as if they had done nothing more important than take out the trash. Thankfully dismissing the significance of ones own work does not dilute it of it’s potential.

“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” Anais Nin

Throughout the years I have rooted for artists to make a living at their art, but almost none of them do. Most must do some other form of it to survive. Producing artists they don’t necessarily believe in, writing music for television or film, working on commercials, all to be able to fund their true creative endeavors. I don’t slight them for doing what is necessary to earn a living, quite the opposite; I’m impressed with how hard they work for it. But when they cease to purely create at least on occasion because being creative doesn’t pay, they cease to be an artist. I have seen artist start down a capitalist road, taking work that will pay the bills so they can afford to continue their creative pursuits, only to eventually refuse to be freely creative in their artistic expressions because doing so might jeopardize the cash cow they have found at the tit of the record companies. It is sad to witness artistic brilliance quashed sacrificially by an artist, for fear of rocking the boat. The same boat that artist refused to ride in at the beginning of their journey, and that by all rationale should have been sunk years ago by it’s own acceptance of mediocrity.

So when I hear someone who wants others to believe that they are an “artist” ask “What is the incentive to create, I will not see a dime from it.” I begin to question everything they produce, where is the passion? Can true art be created dispassionately? If you cannot create for the sake of creating, but only when it has the potential to offer you a paycheck, then go become an accountant already, because I want to hear about your heart, not how big your mortgage payment is.

So why create without the guarantee of financial reward? Because it is your passion, if it is no longer a passion, you have no business doing it. Art and commerce are mixed together in a soup that cannot easily be separated. But an artist who puts commerce before art, is no longer an artist, at least in my opinion.

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”
Paul Gauguin

I have heard some artist claim that music is all the same, there has not been anything new in rock and roll in the last forty years so what’s the point. I’m trying to imagine My Chemical Romance or Powder performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, somehow I don’t think they would have made it past the 1950’s sensors.

Louder or offensive does not necessarily mean new, the music my nephew listens to does have it’s roots in blues, jazz and rock after all, but it certainly doesn’t sound like any of those to me, so I do consider it something new.

Seeing a band on stage that is free and passionate in what they do makes me love their music even when the style is something other than what I would normally be drawn to. Watching someone who is passionately free in their expression is liberating to my soul no matter what form that expression takes.

This summer I walked through the Chicago Institute of Art. I saw all of the “Great masters”. I stood and cried at the self-portrait of Van Gogh, yet felt no emotions in front of the Rembrandts. I appreciated their beauty but they did not speak to me. Dali’s “Birth of Monster’s” however disturbed me so much I felt sick to my stomach. I hated the subject matter; I hated what I was looking at. But I forced myself to study it for a few minutes until I got chills and had to leave. He had something to say to me. It may not have been something I was comfortable hearing, but it was passionately expressed – so I listened.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
John Keating.

For centuries art has been a catalyst for change, from Shakespearean plays, renaissance paintings, to counterculture poetry. Satirically poking fun at the king or calling for the overthrow of a tyrant has been tolerated through art when freedom of speech was not even a concept. Most of us have come to take for granted those freedoms, and it seems therefore we have stopped expecting artists to move beyond the pale.

So what of those still oppressed by tyrants, held in poverty, consumed by the ravages of ethnic cleansing? I wonder, given the tools of artistic expression what they might have to say. Is there a young Van Gogh, Mozart, or Yeats wandering amongst the refugee camps of Darfur? Is there someone there, who, if given a voice, the tools to express them selves might someday set their world on fire?

“ I don’t tell the other kids I am sick because they will bully me and torment me. I just wish I had some crayons and some books to write in.”
Noah age 8 – HIV positive – Africa