Prompted by Bianca Mikahn
On Medium, “New Grief: Stay True” by Autumn T. Thomas in response to Tilt West’s virtual roundtable on Art, Trauma & Resistance
I am excited to lead off this roundtable discussion on October 7th. Art, Trauma, & Resistance—the intersection of these three topics is a space that is most dear to me.
Here in the U.S., our mainstream culture has a poor track record when it comes to acknowledging trauma, and this is nowhere more evident than on social media, where our freedom-loving aesthetic demands that we fabricate, maintain, and project a narrative of glowing wellness at all times. This spring, our Covid-19 shutdown was shadowed by a new form of productivity shaming, celebrating the “free” time folks had and offering lists of everything we should be getting done in the midst of all this uncertainty and upheaval. Our embrace of toxic positivity, combined with a harmful bootstrap rhetoric, creates a dynamic where we may only feel free to express the impacts of trauma if we can concurrently demonstrate that we are overcoming them. By contrast, art—in all its myriad forms—can offer us opportunities to express our experience of trauma in ways that are more authentic, more honest, and more vulnerable.
For the purposes of our conversation, I’d like to use this definition for art: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects. Many artistic practices include some aspect of public exhibition as a culminating phase of the work. When one creates art in response to trauma or challenging experiences, the public sharing of the work can function both as an outlet (a form of catharsis) and as a call to action. Art becomes a tool of resistance when its production, dissemination, and consumption are understood to express the “voice” of a movement. Recent examples include local groups like Brothers of Brass providing soundtrack to protests against police brutality, or videos from Portland of mothers linking arms and singing haunting lullabies. We can find countless historical examples, as well. The youth in South Africa sang down the treacherous system of apartheid. The Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 took place despite the fact that the city was under siege by Nazi forces. James Brown performed live at the Boston Garden the night after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and he is credited with stopping the riots in that city. These are just a few of the countless times that we have been stirred, or even saved, by the creative actions of others during times of personal and collective trauma.
This year, in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain, artists with a history of making political work have ramped up and placed themselves at the community’s service. Others who have taken less political stances in the past are now sharing messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Athletic events have been interrupted or canceled to show support. Major corporations are adjusting their messaging to acknowledge this moment. Art is both leading and following this national conversation, but the path forward can seem unclear. Dozens of murals have been painted across the nation, but Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor’s murderers remain free. We are heartened and find community when we sing across balconies or dance in front of riot lines or paint boulevards and parkways with hallmarks of our continued survival. But do these artistic expressions always lead to effective resistance?
It is important to consider—both as creators and as consumers of art—what it is that we want (or possibly need) from art during times like these. What do we believe art is capable of communicating or achieving? Could a poet performing on the UN floor possibly impact global policy? Does artful resistance inherently serve to reduce the impact of trauma? Should artists utilize their talents in service of advocacy, or is art best used as a means to escape reality? How might art help us to envision solutions and alternatives to that reality? This conversation will address these and so many more questions. I’m thankful we get to ask them together!
Suggested Readings and Background Materials
Art Resistance Blog
About the prompter
Bianca Mikahn is an emcee, poet, digital composer, cultural activist, and educator. She is Executive Director of Check Your Head, a youth mental health-based organization, and she is a Partner Artist with Creative Strategies for Change and Youth on Record. Mikahn’s writing style is described as fanciful yet pragmatic, fearlessly addressing themes of self-awareness, mental health, and community engagement. Explorations in music production recently garnered Mikahn the title of “Best Avant-Garde Band” from Denver’s Westword. She has shared stages at Regis University, the University of Denver, the La Napoule Art Foundation in Nice, France, and Stockholm, Sweden’s historic Fylkengin Theatre. Currently, Mikahn is honing social-emotional learning and art-based facilitation to encourage trauma-informed care and mental health first aid (adult and youth modules) in marginalized communities. Mikahn also serves on the Tilt West Board.