Some thoughts bouncing around my head about art at 11 pm on a Tuesday evening. All art is an exchange between the artists’ vision and capability, between the artists’ loves and anxieties, between their work and the consumer of their work. There is an intimacy in these exchanges which, when welcomed, creates an awareness of something deep and personal and different for both parties. But when the exchange interrupts the viewer’s comfort and challenges their assumptions, whether it be on morality, religion, politics, or something else, the art becomes subversive. Subversive art is the rarest and, arguably, the most important expression of the human condition because it’s inspired by honesty, outrage, and discontent. It’s calling to right a wrong. It forces people to see things they would rather ignore or forget. And nothing will change unless we have the courage to face our problems and deal with them. Art often sneaks in and plants those seeds in us in hopes that it will grow and force us to act. Art is important because it is the zeitgeist. And art can even save lives if we allow it to inspire us to do so. Art can move the heart to move the hand.
One of the best examples of subversive art is the song ”Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday in 1939. One of the first racist protest songs to be recorded in popular music. It was based on a poem written by Abel Meeropol.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”
Holiday sang the song for the first time at Café Society in Greenwich Village. It was the first integrated nightclub in New York City. Holiday showed a lot of courage knowing that each night she sang it was potentially her last. No record label would touch it. I read that Milt Gabler put the track out on Commodore records after Holiday’s a cappella performance brought him to tears. The song moved his heart to move his hand. Even those who were outraged were forced to face those words and make a choice. So I say bring on the art that reminds us of what we love but always make room for the art that shows us stories of things that must end.