So what do politicians and writers, or creators of any art, have in common? Not much, most of us would hope, but a conversation earlier this week made me see how similar we are. Some of the commonalities are pretty obvious, when you think about them. Others are deeper, so you have to peel back a few layers of the onion (or garlic, if that seems more appropriate) to find them.
An easy one to see is that we all have a message. The politician may want to make the world a better place, correct a specific problem in her district, or be greedy for power, money, or fame. A few sickos might just be bored. An artist also has a message, whether it’s expressed through words, colors, music, dance, sculpture, or any number of things I don’t have the space to list. (Please don’t be offended if I haven’t included your medium. My brain space is even more limited than my computer space.) She might just as easily be greedy for money, fame, or influence.
Within that similarity are, of course, some differences. The politician enjoys the power to change the community, the nation, the world with laws and armies and law enforcement. She has the ability to make change a reality even when the public resists. The artist impacts people through beauty, shock, joy, and anguish. The politician, if successful, changes the face of a society. The artist, if successful, changes attitudes and perspectives. When enough people with different ideas, values, and beliefs see themselves in a painting, a song, or a book, some will recognize that our commonalities almost always outnumber our differences. That’s when society changes on its own.
Politicians and artists share a darker side, too. As the voting public, we attack the ethics, intentions, and leadership abilities of our elected officials when things don’t go the way we want them to. Instead of applauding a politician’s honesty for taking a stand, the public is likely to vote her out of office. And the cycle starts again. The newly elected representative, despite what he says, knows why he got the job and probably will take the path to re-election.
An artist can face a similar problem. When we come face to face with a great artist’s work, we look into a mirror and likely see something we’d rather avoid. The giants are hailed for their honesty, but often starve trying to eat that praise. Show the public what they want to see, though, and that same musician, painter, writer has a much better chance at making a living. The public will criticize her work, but they’ll spend their money, sometimes over and over again, to enjoy it. Usually, creative people start out with dreams of touching souls. Then comes the conflict between producing honest, compelling work and something that will sell. Most grasp the practicalities pretty quickly and go with the money.
Every once in a while, though, Don Quixote throws down his lance and gives the windmills a break. He might pick up a paintbrush or a pen, or maybe throw his hat into a political race. If he jumps in with dreams of glory, seeking approval and vindication as so many do, he will quickly discover that despite high rhetoric and lofty expectations, most people never leave their comfort zones. Not many comfort zones are found on the high road. Eventually, he will have to make a choice between his ideals and what popular culture considers success. It’s a sad thing, but our society worships money and power. Ideals and integrity are only acceptable when they can be used to achieve those things, so choosing both won’t be an option.
If, on the other hand, an artist or a politician jumps into the fray with his eyes open and a sense of purpose over self, a windmill is likely to fall. Even if the opposition, the competition, the hardships, or life itself drive him out, he leaves the battle with his integrity intact and with the continued respect of those who supported him. Those who know him will either mourn or deride his failure, but they only show their ignorance. If one person is inspired to do the right thing, to keep pursuing a dream, or to help someone else, our windmill-jousting-knight has triumphed. He, or she, might never see the result of the struggle, but when that one person gains a measure of hope or happiness or honesty she didn’t have before, the world becomes a better place. I can’t think of a greater goal for anyone.