This Fourth of July, as Americans think about freedom and wonder at its costs, think for a moment of a future where art is not permitted.
Take, for example, the sci-fi classic, "Fahrenheit 451," in which Ray Bradbury described a future where art and books are banned and burned by a totalitarian government. Artists in that future responded by memorizing books, literally preserving them in their minds. The controversies that arise related to artistic freedom range from paintings and film to banned books and provocative movies. It is sometimes a surprise in a democracy, but the case can be made that the desire of governments to control art stems from their fear of the power of truth in art.
To grasp the real-life significance of artists as political agents we have only to remember Cambodia, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and China. In those countries, as in Latin America, the first citizens sent to the gulag or the "reeducation camp" were the artists.
It's no coincidence that repressive governments often go after poets, painters, and playwrights. The artistic sensibility and the practice of making art create a habit of asking questions and – when a political structure is fragile – the right question and one artist can bring the whole thing down. Pablo Neruda did it in Chile by using poetry and fiction to undermine and ultimately overturn a regime, and Vaclav Havel used plays and poems similarly in the former Czechoslovakia.
In the United States, we don't murder artists but we do have culturally specific weapons for killing their work: We lower their status, minimize their contributions, and we cut their funding. We also belittle artists by suggesting that their opinions are irrelevant. It doesn't make sense.
We accord legitimacy to attorneys and professors, and we let business leaders posit their perspectives on current affairs, but we deny that respect to those who have the most highly developed skill in sorting through rhetoric and images. Consider: Was Picasso irrelevant? Tolstoy? Dostoyevsky? Solzhenitsyn?
Solzhenitsyn's criticisms of the Soviet government were taken seriously by the White House as Washington developed its strategy and policy with the former Soviet Union. "Art serves to battle lies and preserve the moral history of a society without the transitory and debasing rhetoric of bureaucrats," that celebrated poet and novelist said in his Nobel lecture.
Edward Said, the great political philosopher, wrote, "Language behaves, it follows power, but art does not behave, it stands out and stands against." Art provides contrast to the dominant messages of our culture so that we can clearly see them.
We have a wonderful example with well-loved American artist Norman Rockwell, who used his work to comment on civic, social, and political issues. His paintings for The Saturday Evening Post and Look magazine covers raised provocative questions about the impact of war, religious intolerance, civil rights, and poverty in America.
Art concentrates thought and emotion. Artists see underlying truths and reflect them back to us. Artists grab us by the front of our shirts and make us look.
Right or wrong, pleasant or disturbing, they make us think. And it is thinking that is at the center of, and the true requirement for, citizenship in a democracy.
Artists ask us to see what is and to imagine what might be. On July 4, when we consider those things that preserve our freedom – the laws and the wars, the courts and the candidates – we must not forget that art, too, is part of the process.
Diane Cameron is a freelance writer. This essay was previously published in the Times Union, a newspaper serving New York's Capital Region.