The Role of Art and Communal Imagination in Our Movement Work

Art can help us to envision the new cultural images we need to grow our souls.

When Grace Lee Boggs wrote this in The Next American Revolution, she called for nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way we approach revolutions. Drawing on her study of the philosophies of Kant and Hegel, on her humanist readings of Marx and on her own experience as a “Johnsonite ” (the Johnson-Forest Tendency led by C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya which emphasized the self-activity of marginalized people in bringing about real social change), Boggs defined the next American revolution as a function of the power that we each have within us to create and maintain the loving relationships that will serve as the foundation for a new society. Beyond using art as a means to draw attention or convey information, we must also leverage artistic thinking and practice in our community building so that we see ourselves, first, as creative subjects.

As part of her organizing work in Detroit, Boggs  founded Detroit Summer, a program which began by asking Detroiters to imagine how their neighborhoods could be safer and livelier. Their responses birthed alternative visions and models of community activism: neighborhood arts and health festivals, public murals, community gardens, and education that centered community over individualism. They sought to counter the post-industrial decay that was blighting Detroit at the time by inviting youth to see themselves as part of a community capable of collectively changing the trajectory of their city. In reviewing Bogg’s program, we should ask ourselves the same question: what can we imagine when we harness our creative energies, and what new futures can we build from our collective imaginations?

One artistic practice I have been inspired by is visionary fiction, a term coined by Walidah Imarisha that forms the basis of Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. In the anthology, Walidah and co-editor adrienne maree brown define visionary fiction as a genre that broadly encompasses "science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, myth, and everything in between," all with "relevance toward building new, freer worlds" that "challenge the narratives that uphold current power dynamics and patterns." In attempting to write my own visionary fiction pieces, I have been moved to confront where in my life I want and need to shift my thinking.

The basis of our collective ability to overthrow and rise above our society's current narratives also rests on our individual ability to invite the new narratives we want to tell into our lives. Part of my personal process involves continual reflection on the questions that adrienne maree brown poses in her text Emergent Strategy:

  • What is the world I want to live in?
  • Who do I want to be in this world?
  • How can I start bringing forth my role and vision into the world now?

As revolutionaries, we must have an eye both on how we're overthrowing a way of thinking and on what we're going to do once we do so. It is in figuring out this second part that I believe we should look to see artistic practice as community practice. Where in the past I was most excited by the potential for artistic pieces to capture the popular imagination, I am now most excited about the possibilities of engaging in artistic practice to create what Grace Lee Boggs called "critical connections."

Recently, I co-hosted a writing workshop for the first time with Temperance Alley, a garden and community space in the alley behind 1931 13th Street NW. In small groups, we created shared universes and characters we wanted to explore in concert with each other. One of these ideas involved examining and breaking free of binaries in the body, and also of binaries in our understanding of the "natural world" — cultivated space versus wild space. This intersection in the interests and inquiry of our group members formed the basis of our co-created universe, which synthesized other thoughts and inspirations on telepathy, time travel and the distances between us. Set in a space like Temperance Alley — a communal and continual reflection not only on what we want to create but also on what we are already building on — the workshop personally represented a first step toward building the community I'd like to be part of.

Artistic practice as community practice is about more than experimenting with narrative form. Sheree Renée Thomas wrote in the foreword to Octavia's Brood that "the activist and the artist seem at first to have been engaged in markedly different lifework, yet they embraced a shared dream for the future." Put another way, as community members and creative subjects ourselves, our lifework is about engaging in creating a shared dream for the future. It is through the arts that we can confess our private hopes, play with being the selves we want to embody, jolt understandings of the world that feel more “absurd” and, in communion with others and reach genuine political insights.

Drawing on the work of Richard Rorty, who himself writes about Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality, Elizabeth Cantalamessa examines the “creative misuses” of public language in social progress. To see ourselves, and to operate, as creative agents, we must recognize that we do have semantic authority over ourselves. We have the power to define and to hear new language “as part of a shared practice,” which will allow us to create new ways of being and to create ourselves as new beings, thereby paving paths of change in our society. Or, as Audre Lorde succinctly writes in Poetry Is Not a Luxury:

We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.

How might we as movement builders create spaces to engage with each other as poets and artists? Foremost, these must be spaces where artistic practice doesn’t have to produce anything — not pieces for commercial consumption and certainly not art as commodity. Instead, these spaces are where parallel timelines, alternate universes and multiverses thrive; where there is neither a dominant narrative nor a lone protagonist; where we can interrogate our own affinities and those of others; where we can mash the multiple things we love into one contradictory reality; where we can nurture “critical connections” in practice through networks of care and acceptance; and where we can, as the activist Starhawk writes, “forge a new language of both the word and the deed.”

How might we as movement builders find forms through which to articulate the as-yet inexpressible? How might we dance together, such that we experience abundance and community bodily, so that we might find joy in movement and feel it within ourselves to keep moving?

Just as Grace Lee Boggs wrote of Detroit Summer as "planting seeds of Hope," so too did Tananarive Due write in Octavia's Brood that "we hope that the work we create is the planting of a seed." The work doesn't necessarily refer to the content we make. Rather, the seeds we have planted in writing with each other, dancing with each other and organizing with each other are seeds of Hope and Love. They are our visions brought forth into the world now, a world of abundant imaginations that will only be made possible through the connections we nurture with each other.

Related Entries