I have been reflecting on the words of Melissa Harris-Perry as of late. When she came to speak at UCI several months ago, I didn’t think her words would still be floating over and under the thoughts in my mind. She posed the question, albeit a rhetorical one, of why schools cut funding for art and music first out of every other extracurricular. Why is it that those forms of expression, of truth telling and soul-baring, are the first to go in any underserved community?
From my limited experiences and exchanges with those entrenched in the struggle against multiple forms of oppression, I am convinced that organizing and activism are artistic expressions—that living and being, surviving, in the skin and body we are born in is in itself an act of art. And like any form of art, there is always competition, always a battle of what group is more oppressed, what group deserves to take up this space and why. But those who work in the struggle, who dirty their hands and engage in unpopular, unpretty forms of art, are true testaments to why we continue to do what we do. This form of art is no competition and we have to remind ourselves that we are not like typical artists who battle for spots in museums or amphitheatres. We are always the painter and the painted, the oppressed and the oppressor, the survivor and the ally. We do not exist in vacuums or in antigravity chambers. We remain hopefully grounded and groundedly hopeful.
It is my understanding that our very voice and body is the only thing we have control over. And as such, in any struggle, we have to reaffirm our own abilities to create art, even when the powers at be refuse to acknowledge our talent. And, like any good artist, we have to know when our space needs to be given to another. We have to know when to step down, hand the brush over, and let someone grow into their own form of expression.
That form of expression is not, does not have to be, happy, carefree, understandable to everyone. I don’t know any artist that isn’t unhappy at times, displeased with status quo or commenting on the state of society. Organizing is no exception. One of the most frustrating things that I come across when explaining resistance and the struggle is how people perceive movements as unhappy: too serious, too dramatic. One response I have is that oppression is dramatic, living is dramatic. If you can’t understand that, then you don’t understand art. But more than that is the simple fact that organizing and resisting is a loving act for and with communities. That those who continue to struggle for justice and acknowledgement of their very humanness must seek joy in the darkest of places and times. That when we fail to do this, we fall into a darker place than whence we came. If art is about a reflection on life and survival, then we in the struggle are all goddamn Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s in the making.
Because I don’t care what form of injustice you are fighting against. I don’t care if you’re bad at drawing or painting or singing or dancing. You are an artist. You are survival and joy and anguish wrapped into one. You are deserving of painting your life on a canvas, even if that canvas is the street and your paintbrush is a marker on poster board. And if anyone, ever, tells you differently, know that the only form of art they’ll ever understand is one they have to pay for. And that is not your fault, they are not your audience, and you should never apologize for your right to exist as an artist, activist, human being.