How to Talk About Art at the End of the World

In the face of real disaster, art can start to seem kind of trivial, even to artists.  Here’s why it’s really, really not.

So, it happened.  And it feels like the end of the world, doesn’t it?

Here at Culturess, we write largely about things that a certain set of people might call “frivolous.”  TV recaps and movie reviews.  Celebrity news and awards shows.  And I love writing about that stuff.  In addition to writing for Culturess, I am an actress and screenwriter, so I am very invested in these topics.  Art is my life.  It’s what I love, more than anything.

But in times like this, even I am at a loss sometimes.  In the midst of the trash fire that is our current political climate, it’s easy for me to start to look at myself and ask:  Why?  I am only qualified to write about pop culture and make movies and pretend to be other people.  What am I contributing?  Why didn’t I go to law school or something?  I look at the world and feel like I have no skills to heal it.

It doesn’t take long before I remember what I’m here for.

America just proved that it is consumed by hatred.  Of women.  Of minorities.  Of Muslims.  Of the LGBT+ community.  And that’s not political.  It’s cultural.  Under President Obama, we were equalizing the power.  And the powerful don’t like that.  So they created this backlash against a better world.

Image via Joan Marcus

But policy doesn’t change culture.  I mean, it does, but not for a long time.  When Obergefell v. Hodges came down and legalized gay marriage, it didn’t change anyone’s mind.  It didn’t make us, as a society, any less homophobic.  The inevitable increase of out gay people and out, gay, married couples will, of course, in time.  But not right away.  A rule or a law in itself doesn’t change culture.

But here’s what does:  sitting down and watching Modern Family every week.

Seeing a family with two dads deal with their daily lives.  Seeing them go through all the things you do.  Laughing along with them.

Because when you do that, you’re feeling empathy.  You’re feeling the reality of these people being people.  And then the next time you meet someone who isn’t like you, you remember what you watched, or read, or listened to.  And you invite that person into your vision of humanity.

You’re feeling the reality of these people being people. And then the next time you meet someone who isn’t like you, you remember what you watched, or read, or listened to. And you invite that person into your vision of humanity.

That is the power of art.  Art is what changes culture.

We need artists.  Now more than ever.

We need Lin-Manuel Miranda.  We need a Puerto Rican man telling us stories from In The Heights.  We need to see black and Latino and immigrant founding fathers.  We need to see that this country belongs to all of us.

We need Roxane Gay.  We need her voice on This American Life.  We need her words in The New York Times.  We need the women of Wakanda.  We need Bad Feminists and Difficult Women.

We need Gina Rodriguez.  We need Jane the Virgin.  We need to see a family of beautiful, strong Latinas loving each other fiercely.  We need her Movement Mondays.

We need Beyoncé.  We need to hear how much she loves her husband’s wide nose and her baby’s afro.  We need to see the word “feminist,” displayed in capital letters, behind the world’s biggest pop star.  We need to get in Formation.

We need Ava DuVernay.  We need the stories of our black leaders.  Our civil rights leaders.  We need to see little black girls step over A Wrinkle in Time into magical worlds.

Lena Dunham and America Ferrera at the Democratic National Convention (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

We need Lena Dunham.  We need the stories of her Girls.  Real girls – ones who are complex, beautiful and terrible, and always worthy of love.  We need to see her body, a contrast to everything they told us counted as beautiful, naked on screen, in all its glory.

We need Kendrick Lamar.  We need an honest voice to speak about what it means to be a black man in America.  We need an honest voice to tell us that we’re gonna be “Alright.”

We need Rachel Bloom.  We need Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  We need bisexual and gay characters who live and love vibrantly.  We need two women in lead roles who defy bullshit beauty standards.  We need to laugh.

We need Demi Lovato.  We need her story of living with mental illness.  We need to hear this young woman scream, for all little girls to hear, “What’s wrong with being confident?”

We need Lindy West.  We need to hear her Shrill voice.  We need to read the words of a woman who loves her fat body.  We need her, and every woman to Shout Your Abortion.  Even louder this time.

We need Shonda Rimes.  We need gay characters and black characters and hispanic characters and Asian characters.  We need characters who have had abortions.  We need her Thursdays.

We need LaVerne Cox.  We need the story of what the prison system does to trans people.  We need to see her as trans characters.  We need to see her as cis characters.  We need to not know which, and not care.

Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams (Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images for Lady Parts Justice)

Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler.  Janelle Monae and Janet Mock.  Amanda Palmer and America Ferrera.  Jessica Williams and Jessica Valenti.  Tracee Ellis Ross and Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Sam Smith.  Ellen Page.  Aziz Ansari.  Phoebe Robinson.  Lady Gaga.  Barry Jenkins.  Tarell Alvin McCraney.  Danielle Brooks.  Ana Lily Amirpour.  Sarah Kay.  Lizzo.  W. Kamau Bell.  Constance Wu.  Matt McGorry.  Ilana Glazer.  Abbi Jacobson.  Chance the Rapper.  Hasan Minaj.

We need them all.

Maybe more than anything else, we need the next generation.  Amandla Stenberg.  Tavi Gevinson.  Rowan Blanchard.  Hari Nef.  Zendaya.  Lorde.  Jazz Jennings.  This is the future, and it’s in good hands.

Back in the cramped dorm rooms and rehearsal studios of my university, we used to talk about making a difference.  In the apartment I shared with four other artists while I interned for a theatre in Ohio, we stayed up late talking about what how we could change the world.  We talked about what art means.  We talked about the times when the world would need our magic powers.

It’s now.

We need all these people.  We need all the others.  We need me.  And we need you.

It’s not meaningless.  It’s real.  It’s necessary.  It’s life-saving.

I still believe.  And I am ready.