Art as the Dreamlife of a People by Ricardo Levins Morales

I learned the power of fantasy on the street. At age eleven I found myself uprooted from my highland Puerto Rican barrio, wandering an alien maze of city streets. This new landscape was controlled by the Chicago police – armed and arrogant as an army of occupation – and by competing remnants of the disintegrating street-gang armies. All of these parties were intensely interested in young men of my age. I felt extremely vulnerable. The rules of survival itself seemed to be controlled by forces far beyond my own control.

To survive on my own terms, without being beaten up, ripped off, or recruited, seemed too tall an order – for these were the only options offered. In my mind I rehearsed a thousand variations of confrontations in empty lots and dark alleys (like most sensible young males I avoided the brightly lit avenues where the police held sway). As I played out my daydreams in real-life encounters, I discovered an unexpected freedom. If I declared my own rules – “Sorry, brother, I don’t have much cash now and I need it all” – they were often respected, even by those who should have been able to overrule me.

I learned that my fantasies – a realm to which I retreated for comfort in the face of my fear – had provided me with real avenues for action. They had led me to discover that the supposed rules of the game are not the real rules – once I cease to consent to them. If, as the African revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral described it, culture is the “collective personality of a people,” then the arts are its collective dreamlife. In the absence of coercive control the arts, like dreams, are naturally drawn to the deepest hopes, fears, and truths that are suppressed in daily life…

Too often activist artists ourselves accept the “no trespass” signs of the elite, simply choosing to set up camp on the other side of them. Thus we miss the subversive potential coming straight from the deepest springs of artistic inspirations. If we listen and convey the dreams of our people, we will ignore the signs and property lines. If we violate the warning signs, it will be while being true to our mission as artists. To grasp the full potential of cultural creation as an arena for social transformation we must go beyond seeing ourselves as simply “political artists,” “oppositional art,” or even “voices of dissent”…

Every night, whatever the weather, I step outside and look at the sky. It helps me feel connected to a larger world beyond my city streets; to my people, scattered across a thousand lands, working, struggling, breathing under the light of this sky. Sometimes the stars seem to shine back to me with the gaze of ancient faces. People who crisscrossed these lands in times long past. People to whose survival we owe our own. The silent night sky reflected their questions and ideas about the world, as tonight it does mine. This is my link of intimacy with them. Perhaps another fifteen thousand years in the future someone else will share these quiet moments, and it will be my gaze they imagine in the stars.

I see myself as a representative of that future. As an organizer I’ve learned that without a future it’s difficult to organize the present. If the sun probably won’t rise tomorrow, we may as well throw our beer cans on the lawn, our chemicals in the sea, our topsoil to the wind. If there‘s no tomorrow then living for the pleasures of the moment, getting it while we can, is a reasonable thing to do.

In my time and in my adopted, second homeland, the U.S., hopelessness reaches epidemic proportions. It is the toxic by-product of racial, sexual, class and every other oppression. It weakens our ability to act, to see beyond the “rules of the game” to other ways of being. In a society governed by lies, cynicism becomes the street corner philosophy. Hope and respect are scorned and hungered for. To be optimistic, in a broad, social sense, is to be regarded as some kind of nut. At the same time, to express hope in a persistent and credible way is to be sought after like a water merchant in the desert…

When faced with problems that seem bigger than ourselves, we sometimes wait around hoping that sooner or later a grownup will come along to set things right. Our supposed grownups aren’t always so helpful. “Their” experts blandly assure us that we can run along and play; everything’s under control. “Our” experts are mesmerized by the deadly scenarios of destruction with which they try to frighten us into action. Your presence, reading this, is a defiance of both scripts.

So we must be our own grownups and tap our own sources of hope. As artists we must find the resources to work through our own fears if we’re to help our people move though the dangers.

Every inhalation is an act of hope. Medical people say that when a person loses hope they stop breathing, they die. In every living human there remains an ember of self-love. It’s the hidden story behind every headline. An ember that when kindled become the driving force of history…

When I learned to drive I was told to steer by the farthest visible point on the road, not by what was right in front of my wheels. If you stare downward assuming you’ll probably be hit by a truck before the next bend anyway, it’s likelier to come true. In an uncertain landscape, our greatest safety comes from steering by the stars.

We artists have no special answers unavailable to other people. What we have is work that’s intricately entangled in our people’s dreams, hopes, and self-images. Like it or not, we are part of society’s process of dreaming, thinking, and speaking to itself, reflecting on our past, and finding new ways forward. Our greatest challenge is to accept that what we do with our work and our lives in exactly as important as we believe our people and this world to be.

Ricardo Levins Morales uses art as activism - for organizing campaigns, for education, and for telling stories of the forgotten and misrepresented in history. Since 1979, he has worked through the Northland Poster Collective in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This excerpt is from his essay, "The Importance of Being Artist," originally published in Reimaging America, a collection of essays on art and social change.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).