#Occupy as a Work of Art

I’m a Druid. One reason for that is my love of poetry. Another is my love of peace.

The archetype of the Druid encompasses both the poet and the peacemaker. The inspired bard who holds the memory of the tribe in his songs; the half-wild, half-mad seer who lives on the edge of society, chasing the whispers of the gods in the dark woods and the deep caves; the satirist who can bring down a ruler with a single, scathing word. But also the adviser to kings; the wise counselor and judge; the calm, centered presence that cries Peace! in the midst of a battlefield, who can hold two opposing armies at bay with the strength of a word.

Sometimes I don’t spend enough time considering how the role of the poet and the role of the peacemaker work together and influence each other. It’s easy to think of the poet as the dreamer and visionary, protected from the noise of common society, fiercely guarding the sacred solitude in which she does her work. It’s easy to imagine the peacemaker and political activist as the motivated mover and shaker, always busy, always at work on a plan to influence those in power and change the world. These ideals have often been at odds in my own heart as I’ve struggled to understand my place in society and how best I can live my life as a member of the world community.

But the truth is, sometimes the peacemaker must rest, pause for reflection, turn an attentive ear to the currents or simply trust in the invisible processes of change that ripple through the larger community. And sometimes the poet must act. When the poet and peacemaker act together, not as opposites but as allies, the creative work that results can change the world in unexpected ways.

The poem, the work of art, is a political act — for it articulates and frames the questions, struggles, griefs and desires of a community through the unique insight and self-expression of an individual. A work of art preserves the particular individuality of experience even as it communicates something universal, and in this way it can be even more powerful than the most carefully drafted philosophical manifesto. And if the poem can be a political act, then the political act can be a poem.

This is how I’ve come to understand the #OccupyWallSt movement as it grows and spreads all over the country and across the globe. It is a political act that is also a large-scale, public work of art. It invites participation and contemplation. It articulates the fears, angers and griefs of a community during a time of upheaval and uncertainty. And it does this not through abstract philosophies or political punditry, but through the direct expression of movement, community, bodies, feet on the ground, hands in the air. There is nothing more concrete and specific than thousands of individuals huddling in tents night after night sharing warmth and food and stories together, or marching together in rallies of support, solidarity and protest.

It’s continued to be a common and easy criticism of the #Occupy movement that it has no clearly defined goals. This may or may not be the case (#OWS has consistently released statements of intention and purpose articulating what they hope to accomplish and why). But either way, expecting specific, concrete objectives against which we can measure the #Occupy movement’s success or failure might just be missing the point.

How often do we judge works of art according to their effectiveness at accomplishing specific, objective goals? Works of art are cultural artifacts that help to shape the conversation and transform entrenched attitudes over time. Whether or not they accomplish specific, pre-defined goals is not as important as the new possibilities and soul-deep changes they help to inspire. We do not consider Thoreau’s Walden, Emerson’s Nature or Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac failures because they didn’t lead to immediate, specific changes in policy; and we do not consider Carson’s Silent Spring a success merely because it did. Instead, all of these works have helped to inspire generations of conservationists, environmental activists and modern Pagans not only to take active steps to protect the environment but also to cultivate a meaningful and honorable relationship with the natural world that reaches far beyond the implications of government policy. Similarly, many of the most influential works of art and literature in history have only been appreciated for their influence thanks to the benefit of hindsight. That influence reaches into the very hearts and minds of ordinary people, not just into the public’s wallets and voting booths.

How do we measure the success or failure of such art in the short term?

That question leads me to wonder if we actually end up serving the interests of those in power rather than the general public when we insist that all social acts of protest be “practical” and take the form of concrete, linear goal-setting. Such linear approaches to cultural change — like large-scale overhauls of economic and government systems — almost always require top-down enforcement . When such attempts are successful, they enable those at the “top” to claim the credit. When attempts at linear goal-setting fail — almost always because grassroots movements lack the political clout or financial support to succeed in a rigged game — it is easy to dismiss protesters as “fuzzy-headed” and disorganized. But this again only reinforces the basic assumption that the current power structure is the most efficient and effective way to accomplish change, while subtlety prohibiting any change that might challenge those structures of power themselves.

This is arguably why protests in the United States have been weak and ineffectual over the past several decades. By aspiring to practicality, they have in fact bought into the very assumptions that discredit their approach. Certainly when a current power structure is undeniably corrupt and incompetent at meeting the people’s basic needs (as it was in Egypt under Mubarak), the simple linear goals of a populist movement can manage to overthrow the narrative of those in power. But do we want to wait for things in this country to get that bad?

In the short term, we can look at the success or failure of the #Occupy movement by asking ourselves what it accomplishes in the here and now. Works of art are not only valuable for what they might accomplish in the future; they are valuable as unique expressions of meaning and social consciousness in the present moment. To quote the folk singer Ani DiFranco, great art, like mercy, “gives what it is and has nothing to prove.”

So what is it that the #Occupy movement gives? #OWS is an emergent expression of creative alternatives to the current power structure. It has helped to establish a new form of consensus-driven governance as a real possibility in the public mind. It acts as an on-going example of the power of nonviolence and civil discourse even in the face of police intimidation and brutality. It gives everyone — even those who disagree with its aims — an undeniable example of effective community living that belies the foundations of competition and greed on which our current economic system is based. It has lasted as long as it has because, like any great work of art, it speaks deeply to the needs and struggles of a diverse group of ordinary people. And like any work of art, its power and meaningfulness arises not from accomplishing some objective goal external to itself, but from its creation and persistence as an expression of public interest and experience.

The beauty of a poem is an affirmation of the existence of beauty itself. It changes how we see the world, if only in subtle, immeasurable ways. The #Occupy movement has already changed the conversation and expanded our horizons. It has already given us new cultural symbols that challenge and undermine our assumptions about what is possible. For that reason, regardless of what follows, #OWS has already succeeded.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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