I have been wondering what art and music can/should do in crisis times, especially my niche imagistic abstract ambient acoustic psych songwriter music and the DIY/punk-descended music scenes it exists within. This has been an ongoing preoccupation of mine for many years, but the intensity spiked in February 2022, never let up, and spiked again last week during the Hamas massacres in southern Israel and subsequent ongoing Geneva Protocol-violating IDF bombing and siege of Gaza. None of this looks like it’s going to get better any time soon, either. It is time to try to address this question: Do artists and art communities bear a responsibility to engage with crises like the above?
Messiaen seemed to think so. He wrote and staged Quatuor pour la fin du temps in a Görlitz concentration camp. But was this his responsibility as an artist? He might he might have written something more cheerful to lift his fellow prisoners’ spirits, but he chose this very grave work instead. What would Messiaen do in 2023?
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When global geopolitical conditions change, some people are forced to directly respond by the nature of their work: aid workers and emergency first-responders, politicians, members of the military, etc. Not responding directly would be a failure to accomplish their job. We can call the work of this group of people crisis-engaged work.
Other people might have work that obligates them to do the opposite, creating a bubble shielding their work from the chaos as much as possible: doctors, kindergarten teachers, transit system workers, etc. Not shielding their work would be a failure to accomplish their job. We can call the work of this group of people crisis-shielded work.
An extreme example of crisis-shielded work might clarify the question. Imagine a farmer in a small self-sustaining agricultural village on a state border shared by a hostile power. She sees enemy troops approaching her land. She could set her crops on fire and try to delay their invasion by forcing them to find another route, but if she did so she would jeopardize the village’s food supply. She has a primary responsibility to provide food to the village normally for as long as possible, especially in times of crisis. Otherwise, the village starves. Delaying the invasion a accomplishes little if they have no food. In absence of a phone call from the local unit commander instructing her to burn her crops, it’s sensible to conclude that the nature of her work obligates her to focus on agricultural concerns, to stay out of the crisis as much as possible, and to protect her fields rather than burn them. (Even granting that some might contest this, few would find a decision to burn her crops obviously right.)
In contrast, crisis-engaged work must change and directly address chaos. In our example above, the soldiers guarding the town our farmer lives in, and the village’s mayor, hospital workers, and manufacturing planners, would by many accounts be obligated to directly respond to the pending invasion in a way that drastically impacts their day-to-day functions. A construction company building a road, for example, might immediately pivot to building defensive structures with the same construction equipment. The mayor might cancel a fundraising trip to the capital. The hospital might activate a triage ward and begin a public blood drive. No bubble separates this work from the crisis. It proceeds in direct response to it.
As with many categories, most real-world examples are somewhere in the middle, partly crisis-engaged and partly crisis-shielded. History teachers must still show up for work and guide students through their studies, but they might teach lessons that illuminate the crisis. Journalists must still do their work with unflinching neutrality, but they might be particularly on guard against propaganda and fog-of-war misinformation. Truckers must still drive, but they might need to drive inconvenient unfamiliar routes or work longer hours to deliver crucial supplies.
(It bears mention that work’s crisis attachment is moderated by distance from the crisis arena; a usually crisis-shielded olive farmer or daycare worker under artillery fire in Gaza is more affected by clashes there than a usually crisis-engaged soldier or trauma surgeon in Japan is. But the increasingly-global scale of contemporary geopolitics ethically entangles many more people than geopolitical events in the past. This is especially true in conflicts like Palestine-Israel, as antisemitism and Islamophobia are deep problems everywhere, and in the Russo-Ukrainian War as the violent encroachment of a nuclear-armed kleptocratic mafia state into a European-facing regional power would imperil liberal civilization. Because of this diminishing role of distance and the increasing moral entanglement of every human being, I disregard in this discussion the moderating effect of distance from crisis, and focus instead on the nature of a task.)
But my focus is less general. I have three questions that I can’t let go of. To what extent are working musicians like me, the communities we interact with, and the cultural artifacts they make crisis-engaged vs. crisis-shielded? To what extent should they be? And how, precisely? I’m not sure yet. But I think I’m groping towards something that resembles an answer, and I’ll share more about it from Ternopil tomorrow.
Background reading to get us thinking in the mean time (download them here):
- Michaelson, C. (2011). Whose responsibility is meaningful work? Journal of Management Development, 30(6), 548-557. DOI: 10.1108/02621711111135152
- Sorell, T. (2003). Morality and Emergency. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, 103, 21-37. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4545384
- Wolf, S. (2013, February 21). The Routledge Lecture. URL: https://api.repository.cam.ac.uk/server/api/core/bitstreams/a652a216-0e44-47e2-ad8a-1351b8c6ae48/content