(republished from KIDS Can Make A Difference: Finding Solutions Newsletter, Winter 2013)
“If you think an artist is trustworthy, you’ve never met one.”
“If an artist has kids, he doesn’t spend much time with them.”
I read these words in a certain influential music industry blog that had been recommended to me, and my defensiveness went into high alert.
I am an artist, a food justice activist, and a mother — who at that moment happened to have some 20 spare minutes to write a response while my artist husband was yes, spending time with our kids. In a two paragraph response full of passion and typos I told of how my parenting and my music are inextricably intertwined, and described the dedicated parenting and artistic accomplishments of my Grammy-nominated bassist husband. In parting, I mentioned that I thought we were both pretty ”trustworthy.” Personally so, was the implication, but for me, it’s broader than that.
For isn’t art one of the best ways we humans have to seek the truth? To explore and share our values, to challenge our assumptions, to create community? And indeed, to raise our young people? Artists are shapeshifters, illusion creators, tour guides to escapism, but aren’t we also truth-tellers? Who have to earn and struggle to maintain the trust of our audience in a constant balancing act. We use fiction in the service of fact, fantasy to elucidate reality. We avoid moralism, in order to excavate morality. When what we create finesses fact toward an agenda, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda, and people can sniff that out a mile away. So we artists have to tell the truth.
In those foundation-shaking months after 9/11, I visited again the nagging question of whether my work as a performing songwriter was really the most useful thing I could do in this hurting world. Of course, I know I wasn’t the only one (of those with the rare luxury of choosing our career) then engaged in this soul searching – for everyone, assumptions were stripped bare. Meanwhile, media voices predicted the “end of irony” in culture, songs like Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” were recommended for radio censorship, and the concept of “truthiness” was born again. I started to skim the front page and spend more time with the sports section – here at least the spin on the outcome of human drama was relatively transparent. But in this turmoil I found a sort of new peace with my chosen profession. I realized that though I would always be pulled toward different methods of making a contribution in my time here, it was as an artist that I could be most true.
The blog-issued challenge, meanwhile, has stayed with me, prompting me to internally catalog the long list of artist-activist-parents I know; people who may not be selling out arenas nor featured at the Venice Biennale, but who are alive and alert to the world and its deficits of justice and surplus of beauty. They are trustworthy and trusting in the value of living expansively; truth- seeking and truth-telling by nature and choice. They are social worker/dancers, documentary film-maker/occupiers, singers/community gardeners, writers, educators, photographers .. and they are raising their children with these same open, searching, observing, compassionate eyes. They wrestle with morality and community, within the intimate sphere of teaching their children to share, in the wider realm of judging what accountability they have to the world, and in the infinite realm of seeking the truth. They make connections. They – no, we, I should say — fail, and try again.
As irritating as those lines were at the time, I am grateful for them, as they affirmed again for me how inevitable and right my own path feels today, though the doubts will always be there somewhere beneath the surface. I’ve wrestled with the inward-looking artist/outward-looking activist balance for years, even in these pages (when they still were pages!). Then added the parenting challenge — which may have even tipped the scales into their present, if fleeting, equilibrium. All of these roles are infinite – never ending, never boring, never close to any sort of completion — and always, as I sing in one song of humbled parenthood — “just trying to learn what it’s all about.”
Editors note: We go back a long way with Jen. We first met her when we were members of the Board of Directors for WhyHunger and have worked alongside her for many years. She is one of the original members of the KIDS Advisory Board and continues to be a strong voice on the board.
We implore you to visit her pledge site for her upcoming CD. Even if you do not intend to contribute you will learn more about Jen than this short article contains. Jen is a special person and KIDS is fortunate to have her as a member of our team.