Create Dangerously: A Call to Artistic Arms

On January 19, 1919, Vaslav Njinsky, the greatest dancer of the 20th century, performed a special wartime recital at the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Leading up to the event, he refused to say what he intended to dance and wouldn’t even give hints as to the accompaniment. He was, after all, a star of the highest magnitude. He influenced culture, fashion and society and his appearance would draw a crowd regardless of the presentation.

When the recital started, he performed some perfunctory turns and flashed his mastery in a few signature aerials. Then he grabbed a chair and abruptly sat down facing his audience.

Njinsky glared at them. Time passed but the audience was silent. More time passed and still Njinsky stared. The audience sat motionless.

After several minutes, Njinsky rose. He took rolls of black and white velvet and made a giant cross the length of the room. Then he stood at the head of it with open arms and said: “Now I will dance you the war, with its suffering, with its destruction, with its death. The war which you did not prevent and so you are responsible for.”

And then Njinsky erupted across the room, his monumental gestures filling the space with horror and suffering. The audience was breathless, fascinated and petrified. Njinski’s movements and expressions suffused the room with twisted, contorted bodies and savage explosions. He took his audience to the trenches, the front, and the body-strewn aftermath. He was ethereal and violent; a perfect embodiment of tragic, terrible humanity.

His audience was discomfited, but undeniably moved. His recital was intense, brilliant and compelling.

If you go to the neighborhood library or check Wikipedia, you may find Njinsky as a historical figure or a physical genius. But you will hardly find the spirit of the phenomena he represented. And it’s even less evident on the TV channels and radio stations and art galleries we frequent. They are devoid of urgency and sadly lack the cogent, poetic ferocity that comprised Njinsky’s St. Moritz performance.

Contemporary pop culture is virtually bereft of real relevance and depth and the corporate architects who promote it go to extraordinary lengths to keep it that way. Taylor Swift is as challenging as a lukewarm bath. Lil Wayne is as evocative as a mustard burp. And Justin Bieber is as meaningful as bread crust crumbs in mayonnaise.

Sure, there’s a Sinead O’Connor tearing up the Pope’s picture here and there or a Sharon Olds addressing “The Solution” we seem to have chosen for ourselves. And now and then we hear a Rage Against the Machine; but the Bob Dylans are desperately missed. There’s no future in banal Beyonces, toothless Labeoufs or spineless Twilight and Harry Potter sequels.

There’s no edge to our art anymore because it’s filled with entertainers instead of artists and the few artful souls that do unintentionally get featured usually lack awareness or philosophy.

Kurt Vonnegut used to say that artists were like canaries in a coal mine. That they were super-sensitive and “keeled over” due to toxic conditions long before normal folks even sensed they were in danger. Vonnegut envisioned art as an indispensable herald, a critical means of alarm.

But despite the unparalleled toxicity of our times and our complicity in the systems that endanger us, artists aren’t sounding the alarm. There are as many doom-impending calamities in the world now as there are countries, but most artists are hardly even sentient, much less super-sensitive.

Albert Camus went further than Vonnegut. He plainly stated that “the time for irresponsible artists is over” and that in any troubled era, it was every legitimate artist’s role to create dangerously.

We are involved in one war and one quasi-occupation, but no performer on any significant stage or medium is dancing the war for us or compellingly conveying the shabbiness or shame of the occupation. Our socio-economic system is exposing us to a catalogue of environmental perils, but our creative communities spend more time cashing in on the system than condemning it. Our technological dependence is rendering an inestimable number of our natural, physiological capacities obsolete, but more artists are turning to the new, dehumanizing technologies than disputing their real, long-term merit.

Art for art’s sake was fine when there was nothing at stake, but when everything is at stake artistic expression demands courage and accountability. So if you fancy yourself a literary or filmic or singing sort and your muse isn’t telling you to dance our inhumanities or paint our self-destructiveness or pen our vainglorious insanities, please ignore it and find another pursuit among the uninitiated throngs. We already have enough artists who create safely and serve no purpose.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo, Texas and the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious (History Press, 2013). He can be reached at: erbillsthinks@gmail.com. Read other articles by E.R..

18 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozh said on December 23rd, 2010 at 3:40pm #

    i thought vaslav’s name was nijinsky.
    am i wrong to say that overwhelming number of artists are of supremacistic bend.

    don’t ?all of them make oodles of money? reagan even became a prez! tnx

  2. E.R. Bills said on December 23rd, 2010 at 3:48pm #

    Reagan wuz not an artist.

  3. Don Hawkins said on December 23rd, 2010 at 4:18pm #

    A call to words is it. Think man think.

  4. Don Hawkins said on December 23rd, 2010 at 4:45pm #

    Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs. –Pearl Strachan

    Am taking my time on this one.

  5. David Silver said on December 23rd, 2010 at 4:53pm #

    Viva Bertold Brecht and Paul Roeson

  6. David Silver said on December 23rd, 2010 at 4:54pm #

    The name is Robeson

  7. Don Hawkins said on December 23rd, 2010 at 5:15pm #

    “Only after the last tree has been cut down.
    Only after the last river has been poisoned.
    Only after the last fish has been caught.
    Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

    - Cree Indian Prophecy

    So that being said drill baby drill burn that forest over fish kill that whale coal is where we get our energy buy one share of stock buy gold and go shopping. Now just on the off chance what we now see with our eye’s our we about to find that money cannot be eaten? I find that one hell of a question.

  8. Don Hawkins said on December 23rd, 2010 at 5:56pm #

    Am just getting warmed up. I know I’ll go put on boot’s help’s me think sometimes. There I feel better now.

    The smaller the mind the greater the conceit.
    Aesop

    One thing for sure in old twenty ten it sure seems this whole small mind concept is shape shifting into a more acceptable form where in a mad world only the mad are sane. Just on the off chance how did this happen in say the last two hundred years or so but look at all the advances and all we had to do was destroy the planet we live on, brilliant in it’s complexity.

  9. Gary S. Corseri said on December 23rd, 2010 at 11:00pm #

    Thanks for this, E. R.

    “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Shelley wrote. Artists in general, that is.

    There are real artists striving in every nook and cranny of America. But the MSM, the grants-bestowing foundations and institutions, the money people… are all committed to depoliticizing the arts and keeping the populace dumb and dumber.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain said on December 23rd, 2010 at 11:03pm #

    Yes Paul Robeson. Being a man of talent, being brave and fearless and upsetting the racists and fascists who rule your country can get you into trouble. Robeson upset the US establishment so he was poisoned at a US Embassy reception in Moscow (in the USSR where he was adored and where he said that he was treated like a human being for the first time in his life)and transported to the UK, where scores of brain destroying ECT sessions were inflicted on him. He never recovered. When I was young the story of Robeson’s decline was well known, but the reason for it, of course, was a secret. I’d love to see some Wikileaks about this and the countless other fiendish crimes of the Real Evil Empire.

  11. Don Hawkins said on December 24th, 2010 at 4:02am #

    American exceptionalism refers to the opinion that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. In this view, America’s exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming “the first new nation”,[1] and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional.”[2] The term “American exceptionalism” itself was first used by members of the American Communist Party in the 1920s, in reference to their belief that “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions, America might for a long while avoid the crisis that must eventually befall every capitalist society.”[3]
    Although the term does not imply superiority, some writers have used it in that sense.[1] To them, the United States is a “shining city on a hill”, and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.[4] In the 1960s “postnationalist” scholars rejected American exceptionalism, arguing that the United States had not broken from European history, and had retained class inequities, imperialism and war. Furthermore, they saw every nation as subscribing to some form of exceptionalism.

    Egalitarianism (derived from the French word égal, meaning “equal”), is a trend of thought that favors equality of some sort. Its general premise is that people should be treated as equals on certain dimensions such as religion, politics, economics, social status, and culture. Egalitarian doctrines maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status.[1] In large part, it is a response to the abuses of statist development and has two distinct definitions in modern English.[2] It is defined either as a political doctrine that all people should be treated as equals and have the same political, economic, social, and civil rights[3] or as a social philosophy advocating the removal of economic inequalities among people or the decentralization of power.

    It is considered by some to reflect the natural state of society.[4][5][6]

    A study of major world economies revealed a correlation between income inequality and problems such as homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression and prison population.[7] Wiki

    According to the Houston Chronicle, “environmentalists praise the EPA for taking action to make the nation’s air cleaner and to protect the ozone layer. But industry groups and Gov. Rick Perry’s office said the EPA takeover will create unnecessary restrictions that could cost jobs.” Dallas blog

    Protect the ozone layer so clever the darkside.

    the money people… are all committed to depoliticizing the arts and keeping the populace dumb and dumber. Gary

    Yes and the part I like the best is the money people in order to keep the populace dumb and dumber must first dumb themselves down of course they think they only do that for the populace and then when with a few close friends once again oh so smart. Careful what you wish for oh so wise one’s.

  12. Don Hawkins said on December 24th, 2010 at 5:18am #

    Supremacism is the belief that a particular race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, belief system or culture is superior to others and entitles those who identify with it to dominate, control or rule those who do not.

    Well well well we human’s sure have it all figured out don’t we? Yes the last two human’s on Earth am dominate no am dominate heck maybe they will strike a blow at the same time end of story. It’s Christmas Eve am trying to get in the sprit.

    Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
    Let men their songs employ;
    While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

    Is there one God floating in space and it’s all how you look at it. Of course this whole thing started with Eve giving Adam the apple or did they have the idea at the same time. Then the land of Nod is it still out there. I wonder is it true that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, absolutely or certain human’s are after reading how to win friends and influence people just more corruptible? Am dominate no am dominate what are your thought’s on While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains? Why are you looking at me like that I’ll bet you think am Nut’s come back come back where are you going? “Shopping”. Was it something I said I can change.

    One idea two million people Capital, Fox New’s, CNN, Goldman, Wall Street all laughing at the same time and that’s only a start. Control or rule those who do not. Yes not just laughter switch back and forth a little. Beat them at there own game.

  13. Don Hawkins said on December 24th, 2010 at 6:17am #

    Scientists have established a link between the cold, snowy winters in Britain and melting sea ice in the Arctic and have warned that long periods of freezing weather are likely to become more frequent in years to come.

    An analysis of the ice-free regions of the Arctic Ocean has found that the higher temperatures there caused by global warming, which have melted the sea ice in the summer months, have paradoxically increased the chances of colder winters in Britain and the rest of northern Europe.

    The findings are being assessed by British climate scientists, who have been asked by ministers for advice on whether the past two cold winters are part of a wider pattern of climate change that will cause further damaging disruption to the nation’s creaking transport infrastructure. Independent

    And the summers are not going to be a hell of a lot of fun either. Either way this little change over is going to get ruff. So far the big plan is go shopping is it. There could be a few plans we don’t hear about. In the States do we hear about this paradox on the MSM well no. The truth has been banned as we can’t handle the truth somebody sure can’t. Control or rule those who do not, really.

  14. Don Hawkins said on December 24th, 2010 at 6:53am #

    An analysis of the ice-free regions of the Arctic Ocean has found that the higher temperatures there caused by global warming, which have melted the sea ice in the summer months, have paradoxically increased the chances of colder winters in Britain and the rest of northern Europe.

    How long another great question because as the ice melt’s we will see warmer temperatures longer into the season a little at first I need to see how the rest of this winter goes and into the summer. This very minute a tad bit dry here in the South Florida, Georgia and look’s like it will stay that way. Anyway after are great leaders get back for the new Congress what wonderful working together will we see probably more on the lines of pit us we the people one against another. Again this is not a very good plan.

  15. MichaelKenny said on December 24th, 2010 at 8:42am #

    Re Europe’s winter. What has happened is that global warming has melted part of the polar ice cap, and less ice and more water up there has favoured the formation of anticyclones over the Arctic. Anticyclones turn clockwise and thus, cold polar air is coming down into Western Europe. There, it is meeting lows bringing in moist and warmer air from the Atlantic, generating precipitation which, because of the colder air temperature, comes down as snow. This winter has been the worst I have ever seen in my life and I’m 61! Airports are in chaos, with runways snowed under and now, a shortage of glycol to de-frost planes. People are camped in the terminals and some will spend Christmas there. High-speed trains have had to slow down because blocks of ice which form under the cars splinter if they fall of at high speed and could shatter the windows of oncoming trains. Bus services, even in big cities, have completely shut down, often for several days. People are getting stuck in their cars on the open road and having to be rescued by firefighters and brought to places like school halls to spend the night. Truck traffic is restricted, leading to shortages in the shops. And road authorities are running out of salt. Nobody will ever again need to convince Europeans that something needs to be done about global warming!

  16. Don Hawkins said on December 24th, 2010 at 8:45am #

    Michael marry Christmas Mate we are all in this together.

  17. jayn0t said on December 24th, 2010 at 9:27am #

    “Scientists have established a link between the cold, snowy winters in Britain and melting sea ice in the Arctic” says a commentator, above.

    They also ‘established’, in 2000, that snow would disappear from the UK. City councils believed them, and cut down on snow ploughs and grit – http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/snowfalls-are-now-just-a-thing-of-the-past-724017.html – whatever the weather, it is attributed to global warming. That’s why these ‘scientists’ aren’t. Real scientific theories are falsifiable – there are possible events which could disprove them.

    Merry Christmas/Hannukah/Whatever… and a happy new year… onward and upward, J

  18. Don Hawkins said on December 24th, 2010 at 2:40pm #

    Conditions in context
    As temperatures drop in autumn, open water areas on the Arctic coastal seas quickly refreeze. After this rapid increase in ice extent during October, ice growth slows in November. This November, ice extent over the entire Arctic grew at an average rate of 74,000 square kilometers per day (28,600 miles per day), which is slower than average. However, local weather conditions kept ice extent very low in some locations, contributing to the low extent for the month.

    Near-surface air temperatures over the Siberian and Alaskan side of the Arctic were 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal in November. Air temperatures over Baffin Bay were also unusually warm (8 degrees Celsius, or 14 degrees Fahrenheit above average). The warm air came from two sources: unfrozen areas of the ocean continued to release heat to the atmosphere; and a circulation pattern brought warm air into the Arctic from the south. NSIDC