The Artist’s Business

“We are a race of artists. What are we doing about it?”

Shirley Graham Du Bois


In his essay Artists in Times of War, the historian Howard Zinn talks about how important it is for common people like you and me to use our voices in standing up against injustice. 

It’s something to think about — in our society we tend to pigeonhole ourselves into disciplines or professions. And more often that not, that’s how we introduce ourselves to one another — “I’m a doctor”, “I’m an engineer”, “I’m an accountant”.

With that, we tend to think that our profession is really all we are. If anything happens outside our field of expertise, we’re quick to shrug and say, “That’s not my problem” or more commonly, “I don’t know much about that. I’m just a (insert profession).”

If everybody thinks that way, who will be there to stop the rain? — who will be there to bring about a necessary change? 

Howard Zinn relates to a period of time when the Vietnam War was raging on, and historians in the United States were divided in their opinions on whether the war was justified. Some believed that the US should abandon the war, while others refused to give their opinions because they were “just historians” and that it wasn’t their business.

“But whose business is it?,” Zinn writes. “The historian says, ‘It’s not my business.’ The lawyer says, ‘It’s not my business.’ The businessman says, ‘It’s not my business.’ And the artist says, ‘It’s not my business.’ Then whose business is it? Does that mean you are going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country? How stupid can we be?”

“There are experts in little things but there are no experts in big things,” he adds. “There are experts in this fact and that fact but there are no moral experts.

“All of us, no matter what we do, have the right to make moral decisions about the world. We must be undeterred by the cries of people who say, ‘You don’t know. You’re not an expert. These people up there, they know.’ It takes only a bit of knowledge of history to realize how dangerous it is to think that the people who run the country know what they are doing.”

Realize that all of us are artists in that we have the power to usher change. All of us have the business of stepping out of the pigeonholes that we have created, to fight that inner voice that tells us “That’s not your job.”

It’s not that you don’t need to have knowledge on what you’re speaking out about — mindless courage gets you nowhere either. It’s only that you need to know enough

If John Steinbeck believed that he didn’t know well enough about the Great Depression, we wouldn’t have “The Grapes of Wrath”, which was the product of the many notes he had taken based on his own observations of the plight of the poor.

If Bob Dylan believed that he was just a young folk singer, we wouldn’t have “Blowing in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and other world-changing tracks.

So raise your hand and speak up.

Because if it isn’t your business, and if it isn’t other people’s business either, then whose is it? 

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