Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
This is an excerpt from a journal entry by the conductor of a rag-tag orchestra during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. They had been instructed to perform Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. By that time, Leningrad had been under siege for over a year. Thousands had died of starvation.
The little orchestra lost three members during the weeks of rehearsal. Weak from hunger, sometimes they only played for 15 minutes before giving up for the day. The wind players were especially prone to fainting from the effort of playing.
On the day of the concert, speakers were wired all over the city for everyone to hear the music, and they were also aimed over the walls, toward Hitler’s army encamped without.
Despite the poor artistic quality of the performance (the musicians struggled to finish), it is considered one of the most important artistic performances of the war because of the psychological impact it had on both the Russians and the Germans. On hearing the music, many of the German troops wept. Years later, some of them said it made them believe they would never take the city, whose people were so brave and defiant.
The symphony itself is still known as “The Leningrad Symphony.”
During the time I was working on Olu’s portrait last summer, there were very disturbing things happening in the world outside my studio walls. There were protests springing up all over the country in response to police violence against black people. Shootings were happening in retaliation and people were taking to the streets after questionable verdicts came back in regards to the true justice of the situation. Milwaukee, near my home, exploded into an all-night frenzy after a police officer shot a suspect. An entire neighborhood was terrorized, looted and burned.
Across the whole country, fringe groups that had long been despised started showing their presence more brazenly, and finding support for their views. The man running for president continuously fanned the flames of this unrest, while simultaneously denying any complicity in the resulting behaviors.
Removed from all of this, tucked safely in my studio, I started in on a new portrait of a man who happens to be both black, and a former police officer. As my country descended into anger and fear, I pondered how to mix African American skin tones correctly. (Ask any portrait artist—there is no such thing as white people and black people: everyone is orange. Just different shades and temperatures of orange, with touches of other colors. One of my recent portraits looked completely wrong until I made the woman’s skin very faintly lavender.)
One day as I worked, preoccupied by the latest news, the story of the Cultural Revolution in China started whispering in my mind. Launched the year before I was born, it swept through China with an horrific vengeance. Simply having an education put one in jeopardy of imprisonment. Shades of the French Revolution, when any man, woman or child born with the wrong heritage was condemned to death.
Both of those scenarios sound ridiculous, but it is important to remember that isn’t where they started. Sometimes things start with an innocuous idea—something like: “I think our citizens have become too far removed from their roots, and have forgotten the work it took to make us a prosperous nation.” But taken too far, bereft of wise leadership and common sense, such ideas have descended into anarchy.
Driven by sorrow from what I was seeing on the news, I painted, because that was all I could do. Late into the night, I painted Olu’s beautiful pink fingers, his restful face. I sat through my job each day counting the hours until I could get back to my studio, barely taking time to eat.
I typically give myself two months to complete a portrait; I painted Olu in two weeks. And I titled the painting not only as an homage to the subject, but also as a message to myself: “Undaunted Courage.”
History has shown us that every once in awhile an entire society collectively loses its mind. When that happens, the horrors that are unleashed make the rest of the world draw back aghast. And when that same society eventually awakens from its demonic frenzy, it is aghast as well.
Then the questions are asked: How did this happen? How could decent people allow this to happen?
And the inevitable affirmation: Never, ever again.
I feel we are teetering on the edge of something. We are so much more divided than I ever dreamed. Things we thought couldn’t happen here, are happening. Something has been awakened.
I recently heard a phone interview with a man who lived in Aleppo, Syria. He and other people were trapped, under fire from both the Syrian rebels and the government fighting to win control of the city. “We’re talking about regular people sitting in their homes,” he said. “They don’t want to live in refugee camps . . . they don’t want to flee. As a human being who is living this horror, I demand a cease-fire.”
I slowed the car to a stop, slack-jawed. “I demand a cease-fire.” One unknown man, caught in the cross-hairs of a conflict that has the attention of every major government in the world, was demanding a cease-fire. Taking the one small opportunity chance had handed him to have his voice be heard.
It is tempting to look this and think it is insignificant. One demand from an unknown civilian does not stop a war. His statement will not make any difference.
But turn again to our great teacher, History, and we see that governments have long understood that one person, one voice, can indeed rouse great change.
One of my professors once said, “First they round up all the writers, then they round up all the artists.” Stalin and Hitler both enforced a state-approved style of art, and the rest was condemned. Artists who were deemed ‘degenerate’ were fired from teaching jobs and banned from creating art. Putin’s Russia has warned, jailed, and killed artists and writers who disagree with the State. Ai Weiwei drops a Han Dynasty urn in protest of the Chinese government’s human rights violations; his studio is bulldozed and he is thrown in jail.
Painting Olu’s portrait during a time of great unrest in our country didn’t change any of the outcomes. But his story of community dedication and work for justice is one that needed to be told. It felt like I was painting in protest.
We all root for the forlorn hobbit, wandering over the treacherous landscape while the forces of evil try to find him. But here’s the thing: the hobbit always wins. The tiny speck of light out-does the greatest darkness every time. There may be much suffering along the way. It may take a long time. But somehow, the light eventually comes through in the end.
It is time for every artist, writer and musician to step up to whatever microphone chance may hand you. Throw your voice into the vacuum that threatens to pull us down into chaos, believing that your one voice can indeed change the course of events. Raise your instrument to your lips, for as long as you have the strength.
Demand a cease-fire.
You are the light. You are the light. You are the light.
Copyright 2017 Deb Marett
Deb Marett is an artist and writer who lives in Milwaukee.
Undaunted Courage by Deb Marett