The social responsibilities of writers and artists

Following is part two of the talk given by writer and activist Ann Pancake in May 2016 at the University of Hawai‘i.

I’ve now been involved in the fight against mountaintop removal for 16 years.  What I’ve witnessed in sixteen years is extraordinary success in the Appalachian environmental movement’s educating people not only all over the country about mountaintop removal, but people all over the world.  That education has fueled enormous outcry against the destruction, including myriad efforts through lawsuits and legislation to halt the mining or at least slow it down.  Scientific study after scientific study have been published proving the deleterious effects of mountaintop removal on all forms of life, including human, along with economic studies that point out this type of mining’s lack of viability in the long-term.

Yet mountaintop removal has juggernauted on.  I remember something a man named Willard said to me fourteen years ago when I was interviewing him.  Willard’s property was surrounded on three sides by mines when I met him.  His house had cracks all over the interior walls from the blasting, and he was enduring crippling health problems which he suspected came from his well being poisoned.  What Willard said summed up perfectly what I would come to feel after a few more years as an activist:  “We just keep fightin and fightin and fightin, and it seems we can’t get nothing done.”  Mountaintop removal mining has slowed only recently not because those in power have decided to listen to the majority of Americans and Appalachians who want their environment protected, but because coal is being challenged by natural gas as America’s fossil fuel of choice.  So in Appalachia we are trading one devastating environmental practice—stripmining—for a different one—hydrofracking.

So.  This fightin and fightin and fightin and never getting nothin done—well, that’s changed me almost as much as witnessing all the ruination and heartbreak caused by mining has changed me.  I’ve gone through deep periods of despair about it.  Periods of cynicism.  Other times, I’ve just become apathetic, and have fought the impulse to isolate myself, insulate myself.   I’ve wallowed in these states.  I’ve struggled with guilt over my paralysis.  But I have had one insight that helps break up that paralysis:

Periods of disintegration most often contain within them profound possibilities for creation.  Things generally have to break down before something new is born.  Following that logic, an era like this one, precisely because of the scale and scope of its dissolution, offers tremendous opportunities for sweeping systemic change.  I’ve come to believe that the only solution to our current global mess is a radical transformation of how people think and perceive and value.  And I MEAN radical transformation of how people think and perceive and value.  I mean we have to look beyond current dominant Western epistemologies, which, I would argue, are restricted by Cartesian logic, by mechanistic understandings of science, by anthropocentrism, and by a blind devotion to technology.  I’m not advocating throwing these out entirely; but I don’t think these ways of knowing, by themselves, are viable any longer.  And by “viable,” I mean we can’t physically survive as a species if we hang onto them to the exclusion of other ways of knowing and seeing.

I believe we must revolutionize our interiors.  And now I come back to that question that Frank asked me to address for this talk:  what is the responsibility of the artist to her place and community, given current global crises, in particular, environmental crises?  And I think of something I heard Barry Lopez say in a talk he gave in Homer, Alaska, four years ago:  What we need now, Barry said, is not more science—but more art.  I believe the revolutionizing of interiors is exactly what art can do better than anything else at our disposal, aside from spirituality and certain kinds of direct experience which are not as easily available as art.  One way to start revolutionizing interiors is by educating people, and art that does documentary work, does that truth-telling, can contribute to that kind of education.  But given our dire circumstances, I believe we artists must open ourselves wider to how art serves society beyond the ways art bears witness.

Take, for instance, art’s power to exercise, develop, and revitalize the imagination, the imaginations of both readers and writers.  In our culture imagination is impoverished and misdirected at a time when we desperately need new vision and ideas.  The literary arts, especially fiction, make more extensive and sustained demands on a reader’s imagination than perhaps any other form of media.  Admittedly, the imaginative effort a person must make to read literature means some won’t bother to engage with it at all.  However, those who are willing to participate can come through the interaction deeply imprinted precisely because they had to engage their imaginations so energetically.  And that exercising of the imagination can help readers and writers imagine better in other parts of their lives.

Following is the last part of Ann Pancake’s talk.

I want to point out, too, the way literature and art in general all art can reunite an individual’s conscious and unconscious.   This re-uniting happens in both the artist and in the artist’s audience. I can’t emphasize how imperative I think this reunion is. I would argue that many of our contemporary ills are caused or made worse by our culture’s rending the conscious from the unconscious, then elevating the conscious—the intellect, rationality—to the complete neglect, if not outright derision, of the unconscious. This is disastrous not only because such psychic amputation cripples people, contributing to feelings of emptiness, insatiability, depression, and anxiety. It’s also disastrous because within that castoff unconscious—in intuition, in dreams—dwell ideas, solutions, and utterly fresh ways of perceiving and understanding that we need urgently in this era of transition. I, like all artists, know the power of the unconscious because it’s where I’ve gone for decades for my fiction writing. I know how boundless that realm is, and I know my unconscious is eons ahead of my intellect, worlds larger in vision than my rational mind. This is exactly where we’ll find the materials and the fuel for that transformation of psyche I’m talking about. And our very business as artists is trafficking between the conscious and the unconscious. We’re actually one of the very last groups in this culture who have a sanctioned day-to-day relationship with our unconscious, with our dreams and intuition.

Now I’ll go a little further with this notion of artists’ reintegration of the conscious and the unconscious, by proposing, too, that artists are translators between the visible and invisible worlds. Intermediaries between the profane and the sacred. How is this pertinent to the case I’m making for art’s ability to create change in the world? Only by de-sacralizing the world, over centuries, have we given ourselves permission to destroy it. In order to protect and preserve life we must re-recognize its sacredness, and art helps us do that. Art re-sacralizes by illuminating the profound within the apparently mundane. Art can restore reverence and wonder for the everyday. Art heightens our attentiveness and enlarges our compassion. And for most of human history, storytellers, along with shamans, were the community members who moved between worlds and found ways to translate into language concepts and emotions and energies that transcend ordinary human language because they originate in worlds that are not human.

I want to say here a few words about the contributions of Hawaii and its culture and its ethics to the revolutionizing of interiors, to the revising of conventional Western epistemologies, that I’m talking about. I hesitate to say much about this, because I know so little about Hawaii. And I hope that during our discussion following this talk you can tell me more of your perspective. But from what I can discern from the times I’ve visited Hawaii and from what I’ve read about it, many Hawaiians, of all ethnicities, still carry a living sense of this land being sacred. That sense is not nonexistent on the Mainland, but, as you know, is largely absent there, except as rhetoric. However, I think even many Mainland tourists leave Hawaii with at least a slight insight into how you perceive the land as sacred. And, again, I don’t want to presume too much because of how limited my knowledge is, but I can see Hawaii and its particular belief systems as extremely important to this revolution in thinking and feeling I believe dominant Western culture must undergo. Both Barry and I have arrived, separately, at the conviction that Western industrialized people, if we are to survive, need to take very seriously certain values and certain kinds of knowledge that pre-industrial indigenous peoples had and still carry now for us now. As you do here in Hawaii. This is not some naïve romanticized belief that we can and should return to pre-industrial culture, but the understanding that we must essentially re-learn from those cultures how to have sane and healthy relationships with the natural world. I had the wonderful opportunity on Saturday to go to the East Maui Taro Festival in Hana. I can’t tell you how moved and inspired I was by the passion of the people there for reviving traditional fruits and vegetables and sustainable ways of farming, along with the dedication to protecting the land on Eas Maui. The whole festival was infused with this love and enthusiasm for the land and the ocean. I’ve seen nothing like that on the Mainland, not at a festival where people from all walks of life were just there, celebrating taro and having a good time. On the Mainland, I’ve only seen this kind of thing at events put on and attended by people who identify as environmentalists of some sort.

Another quality of Hawaiian culture that seems critical to me, but which I don’t understand at all within its Hawaiian context, is aloha. Love. Again, I’d really like to learn more about what Hawaiians mean by “aloha” during our conversation later. In addition to Barry Lopez, another contemporary environmental writer who pushes the envelope in ways I think are imperative is a man named Jack Turner, who wrote a nonfiction book called The Abstract Wild. Turner insists that only genuine love of our environment will motivate us to save it. Further, he believes that aside from direct experience, only art can make us fall in love with the world. “Mere concepts and abstractions,” like those in science and public policy, Turner writes, “will not do, because love is beyond concepts and abstractions. And yet the problem is one of love.” (89). And, like Barry, Turner insists it’s not more science we need, but “stories, stories that produce love.” (106)

Art holds other powers for rattling stagnant paradigms, but I’ll just address one more, one that at its best would pull together much of what I’ve already said: the power to envision alternative future realities. My biggest disappointment in my own novel is that it does not provide much concrete vision beyond the contemporary situation in central Appalachia. I have learned that it’s much easier to document a political situation in literature than it is to propose alternatives, to dream forward, without falling into pollyanna-ism or dystopia. But I’ve come to believe that my greatest challenge now—and a challenge for many twenty-first century artists—is to create art that imagines a way forward that is not idealism or fantasy, not dystopia or utopia, but still turns current paradigms on their heads.

I’m going to close this evening by reading for a while from a chapter in my novel that features a character who is struggling with what he knows intuitively about the sacredness of the land he lives on and what he’s been taught about the land his whole life through his culture, primarily his church and the economic system. One of the many complex tragedies of the decimation of the land in Appalachia is that Appalachian people are actually deeply attached to that land and to their place, much more so than many non-indigenous people in the United States. I say this attachment is complex because Appalachians are also deeply complicit in destroying their own land, a paradoxical complicity I won’t have time to talk about tonight. This is from a chapter narrated by a character named Mogey, who is a disabled miner in his fifties. He was an underground miner, not a strip miner, and a part of the mine roof fell on his head and he still suffers from that injury. He and his wife live in a small house that has mountaintop removal mining all around it. Mogey as a character is a composite of several people I met in southern West Virginia while doing research for my sister’s documentary and my novel.


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