I mentioned the word “political” the other day to a very wise woman and she grimaced. I understand the sentiment, as we have long associated politics and religion as the two taboo subjects at the family reunion, the ones that can divide us like a lightning bolt just when the occasion calls for calm weather and Spring flowers. And never has politics been so divisive as it is now. And equally, never has it been so important to pay attention to it.
“Polis” in ancient Greek refers to the city, the community, the collective citizens. “Politikos” means “of the citizen, pertaining to public life.” Since all of us are living a public life, we indeed need to pay attention to the necessary negotiations that allow us to live together , to function together with some semblance of order, efficiency and hopefully, justice. From the water that comes from the tap to the food on the grocery store shelves to the roads we drive on, we are utterly dependent on each other. Each of us is necessary to the smooth functioning of collective living. As such, politics is a required subject, not an elective, in the school of life.
But it’s not the whole deal. We also have our individual destinies to work out , which often are independent of and even in opposition to public life. They often require solitude off to the side of pulling and hauling of the group, be it the writer at the desk, the monk on the meditation cushion, the musician alone with the instrument. But even those solitudes are in service of the community, as each of these disciplines remains incomplete until the book gets published, the insights are shared, the music is performed. Yet what gets published and who gets to perform and where are political questions.
We would hope that true art bypasses the squabbles of opposition and heads straight for our shared humanity. It brings comfort, inspiration, beauty, energy, meaning, into our lives and yes, who wants to muddy those clear flowing waters with political debate? And what’s the good of an efficient, fair, helpful social structure if there’s no beauty at the end of the day? As such, art is also a required subject in the school of life.
In short: No art without politics. No politics without art.
I’m about to launch my course Jazz and Social Justice as a place where these two required subjects meet and converse. I will share stories about jazz musicians who lived in the deep center of their art, but were also deeply affected by the politics of their day and called upon to respond. Sometimes they responded with actions, sometimes with music, sometimes with words and sometimes with words and music, protest songs that got both points across. By hearing their stories and listening to their music and clearly seeing the thread of systemic racism that ran through all their lives, we might edge one inch closer to the work that lies head, the reparations, the reconciliations, the healing we all yearn for.
Besides hearing these necessary and mostly unknown stories, we’ll also listen to the music. I can think of no more pleasurable way to do our duty at citizens in the Polis.
PS If you want to join, come aboard! Here’s the link: