2 min

The activist qualities of art


The Oscars have never really been my bag but I did watch most of the telecast on Feb 22. First among my reasons for watching this year were the nominations for Milk.

The film is most often presented or written about by critics and pundits as a simple story about a protagonist from humble origins who overcomes adversity against the odds. It’s a ubiquitous story form in American mass-market cinema.

But Milk is so much more than that.

Part of what seems lost on most audiences, including some gay ones, is that Milk is a fascinating examination of the power of activism; not just as an historical record but as a real case study of how small groups of people with little more than passion can make big things happen. It is so very difficult to effect positive change when most of the world either has an irrational hate-on for you or, worse, just doesn’t care whether you live or die.

That essence of activism in the film seems on the face of it somewhat lost even on director Gus Van Sant.

“I was never an activist, and I can’t say that I am now,” he told writer Gerald Hannon in Xtra in November. “I’m more of a hermit artist.”

Van Sant even denied then, a bit implausibly in my view, that his films are political.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “They’re challenging conventions of hero and antihero, and challenging what’s moral and immoral.”

Great art is political in its essence and I can’t think of two abstractions more politically charged than antiheroism and morality, but when you’re Gus Van Sant you can say whatever you want about your work and be absolutely right. Perhaps he just doesn’t like the word “activism.”

Over the years I’ve come to believe strongly that the most interesting artists sometimes have (unwittingly or not) a more sophisticated approach to political activism than do those who consider themselves pure political activists.

Artists often seem to me better at effecting positive change in the world — more effective at turning hearts and minds — than journalists or overt protestors.

I’ve found that one of the marks of a good journalist, for example, is an internal struggle between artistic expression and the journalistic framework. When I hear a news or feature writer say, “There’s just more to this story that needs to be told but journalistic standards of truth, fairness, accuracy and timeliness are holding it back. Maybe I should write a play or a novel,” I know they’re beginning to see that issues and gay experiences transcend media. I know I’m talking to an artist/activist.

Take Dustin Lance Black, the brilliant young screenwriter who penned Milk. He was inspired to write the story after seeing the documentary — a journalistic work — The Times of Harvey Milk.

Black, an American gay guy from a conservative religious background, took the opportunity in his Oscar acceptance speech (he won for best original screenplay) to make a powerful political statement:

“When I was 13 years old my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas to California and I heard the story of Harvey Milk,” he said. “It gave me hope, it gave me the hope to live my life…. Most of all if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told they are less-than by their churches or by the government or by their families that you are beautiful wonderful creatures of value.”