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The Benefits of Reading Fiction

Sunday, 10. September 2023 22:51

A lot of my time is spent reading (and for purposes of this post, I am including listening to audio books as “reading” since the mental functions are much the same). Fiction, non-fiction, news, politics, various theoretical things make up most of the material I consume, but I find that my favorite material is fiction, usually novels, but sometimes short story collections. The other day I began to wonder what it was about fiction that drew me so strongly. The quick answer was escape. When I enter the fictional world of a book, I completely disappear from the real world and its stresses. Then, of course, there is the pleasure of reading fiction; it just makes the day better.

I began to wonder if there were other benefits to be derived from reading fiction, so I did a bit of research. I found that there are a number of benefits to reading fiction. Here they are in no particular order, beginning with the two I have already mentioned:

And this list is not exhaustive; there are other benefits. These, however, are the primary ones. What is obvious is that there are a great number of benefits to reading fiction, so, perhaps, if you are not currently a regular fiction reader, you might consider it.


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“Protecting the Children”

Sunday, 30. July 2023 21:46

Book ban attempts hit a record high in 2022. What used to be individual book complaints have morphed now into movements for multiple removals and are organized by national groups. A number of librarians have been harassed and threated. A large majority of complaints about books come from conservatives and are directed toward works with LGBTQ+ or racial themes. Conservative states have passed or proposed laws restricting books, and there has been a push to make book bans and challenges easier in red states. An Arkansas law that allows librarians and booksellers to be criminally charged over providing “harmful” materials to minors has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.

Aside from the fact that practice of book-banning is simply censorship, there are several problems with the current conservative rage to ban books in both schools and public libraries.  First, it is done under the guise of “protecting the children.” What it’s really about is protecting the comfort of parents. This has been true historically and is true now. (“In the 1950s, adults in Alabama crusaded against The Rabbit’s Wedding, which told the story of a black and white rabbit getting married.”) Today the topics are primarily race, ethnicity, and gender identity. The exact reasons for the push to ban vary, but the targeted books have one thing in common: “they empower the people those groups [who want to ban them] would rather see weakened.

Book-banning often ignores the lives of the very kids they purport to protect. For example, many want books that refer to characters having two parents of the same gender banned, when that may be a fact of life for some of the students involved or their classmates. Students often experience bias and prejudice based on skin color or hair style at very early ages; a fact which the book-banners are quick to ignore.

What began as a movement ostensibly about parents’ rights in their child’s education has become something else; it has become a movement to eliminate access—for all students—to books with which certain parents disagree. Theresa Vargas, writing in The Washington Post, says, “I can respect that some people will want to put down the books I want to pick up. What I can’t respect is their belief that they have the right to snatch from my hands, and the hands of other parents, books that we want to read to our children. That picture books are coming under attack shows that the objectors fight never was about supporting parental choice. It’s always been about eliminating choice.

So what this book banning is really about is parents or groups trying to prevent children—any children— from encountering any ideas of which they don’t fully approve. It’s a matter of attempting to brain-wash children into believing exactly what their parents want them to believe. However, it won’t work. Even with all this effort, kids will discover ideas in the most unlikely places (they have access to the internet after all) and they will be who they are, regardless of parental indoctrination. As Rob Sanders, author of Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag says, “Look at me. I’m almost 65, I grew up reading only books that featured parents who were heterosexual and characters who experienced the world in gender-normative ways. Those books did not make me straight.

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It Only Takes One

Sunday, 4. June 2023 20:37

The current state of affairs in American school districts, some libraries, and arts organization is that it only takes one complaint to cancel what the majority might benefit from if these organizations weren’t so easily intimidated. Two recent cases illustrate this trend, one in Florida and one in Utah.

In Florida, one parent complained to the Miami-Dade School District about Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb” along with several other books. The complaint was promptly referred to a committee, where it was determined that one of the books was “balanced and age appropriate and would remain available for all students.” The others, including Gorman’s poem, were restricted to middle-school students only.

A not dissimilar situation recently unfolded in Utah. Again one parent was the complainant. The complaint was that the King James Bible was unsuitable for children due to “vulgarity and violence.” The parent did provide eight pages of passages to show that the Bible is inappropriate. The Davis School District committee concluded that the Bible “does not contain sensitive material” according to Utah’s criminal code, which defines pornographic and harmful materials. Thus, the book was allowed to remain on high school library shelves. It was, however, removed from elementary and junior high schools. This complaint and result was quickly followed by a second complaint by an individual demanding that the  Book of the Mormon be removed from the Davis School District school libraries due to violent content.” The same committee will review the book.

In both of these cases, the books were not banned outright, but restricted because they were “age inappropriate.” One has to think that all the books in an elementary or middle-school library have been vetted by educators and librarians, only to have their judgment “corrected” by an individual parent.

And the threat of a single complaint is spilling over into public libraries and the arts as well. The complaint of a one parent caused a Texas elementary school trip to James and the Giant Peach to be canceled, thus depriving an entire class the opportunity to experience a children’s theatre production rather than keeping one girl home. A theatre director I know is, because of the touchiness of her administration, very concerned about receiving any complaints at all about any production. Needless to say, this has a chilling effect on the choice of plays and the manner of production.

One wonders whether the schools and libraries who cave to the demand of a single complaint have it right. It is, after all, a single complaint, not a majority clamoring for the removal of a certain title. Wouldn’t it be more responsible to say to that individual, “don’t read it,” or “don’t let your child read it,” rather than penalize all who use the library? Perhaps the library in question could keep a list of restricted patrons rather than a list of restricted titles. That way, the vast majority of those who don’t object to the material being available could be better served than by removing the book from availability because of single complaint.

And all of that goes double for those books that are not just “restricted,” but entirely banned. It is obvious that most of the book-banning and book-restricting demands are politically motivated—and do not represent a majority of library patrons. And let’s not forget that the majority of books being banned are by minority authors, many of whom, as Gorman says, “have struggled for generations to get on the bookshelves.” Perhaps author Stephen King has put it most succinctly: “Book-banners, after all, insist that the entire community should see things their way, and only their way. When a book is banned, a whole set of thoughts is locked behind the assertion that there is only one valid set of values, one valid set of beliefs, one valid perception of the world. It’s a scary idea, especially in a society which has been built on the idea of free choice and free thought.” And it only takes one.

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More AI

Sunday, 21. May 2023 21:37

In a discussion of the last post, “Artist and Artisan—the Differences,” a friend of mine wondered how different the answer would be if posed to a different AI. So I did exactly that. I queried Google’s Bard using the same prompt: “In an essay of approximately 500 words, explain the essential difference(s) between an artist and an artisan. Document all quotations.”

This is Bard’s answer:

The terms “artist” and “artisan” are often used interchangeably, but there are some key differences between the two. An artist is a person who creates art, while an artisan is a person who creates objects using traditional methods and materials.

One of the main differences between artists and artisans is their motivation. Artists are motivated by a desire to express themselves creatively, while artisans are motivated by a desire to create functional objects. This difference in motivation is reflected in the different types of objects that artists and artisans create. Artists typically create objects that are meant to be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, while artisans typically create objects that are meant to be used.

Another difference between artists and artisans is their level of skill. Artists typically have a high level of skill in their chosen medium, while artisans may have a more specialized skill set. For example, a painter may be skilled in using a variety of brushes and paints, while a carpenter may be skilled in using a variety of saws and hammers.

Finally, artists and artisans often have different audiences. Artists typically create art for a broad audience, while artisans typically create objects for a more specialized audience. For example, a painter may create paintings that are meant to be hung in galleries, while a carpenter may create furniture that is meant to be used in homes.

In conclusion, there are some key differences between artists and artisans. Artists are motivated by a desire to express themselves creatively, while artisans are motivated by a desire to create functional objects. Artists typically have a high level of skill in their chosen medium, while artisans may have a more specialized skill set. Finally, artists typically create art for a broad audience, while artisans typically create objects for a more specialized audience.


  • “An artist is a person who creates art, while an artisan is a person who creates objects using traditional methods and materials.” – Merriam-Webster
  • “One of the main differences between artists and artisans is their motivation. Artists are motivated by a desire to express themselves creatively, while artisans are motivated by a desire to create functional objects.” – The Difference Between an Artist and an Artisan
  • “Another difference between artists and artisans is their level of skill. Artists typically have a high level of skill in their chosen medium, while artisans may have a more specialized skill set.” – The Difference Between an Artist and an Artisan
  • “Finally, artists and artisans often have different audiences. Artists typically create art for a broad audience, while artisans typically create objects for a more specialized audience.” – The Difference Between an Artist and an Artisan

In all fairness to Bard, I must confess that this is the response to the second time I posed the prompt; I failed to properly save its first response. I also learned that Bard prepares three drafts of its responses, which is also useful. While Bard does remember what and when you queried, it does not itself save the responses. I do remember that in the first response, the quotes were from individuals, not quotes from the response itself; it’s curious that Bard interpreted the term “quotations” differently on the second pass.

In any case, while this information is much the same as that provided by ChatGPT, the presentation is markedly different. Bard’s answer is more conversational and less academically structured. And, although ChatGPT’s quotations are less relevant, they were better integrated into the body of the response. It is difficult to say which is actually better; I tend to like the ChatGPT response better in this instance because it seems more sophisticated, but everyone will have to judge for themselves.

Both of these entities were reported to have been updated this week, so improvements will continue. And new programs come on line almost daily. AI extensions for web browsers have recently been announced. ChatGPT is now connected to the internet in real time. It’s rather remindful of the advent of digital photography, except the technology is moving exponentially faster. Already, academics I know are using AI to create reading lists and course outlines. They report that they are not perfect, but only need to be tweaked to be useful. And it was also reported this week that publisher Bloomsbury unknowingly used an AI-generated image for the cover of a newly-published book; novellas are already being written using AI. And most of us are already using the most rudimentary forms of AI—the spellchecker and grammar checker.

So it becomes a matter not of whether we will use AI, but more a matter of when and how much. Tom Comitta, writing in Wired, contends that one can detect the human hand in every aspect of creativity using AI. As in digital photography, there will always be those who eschew AI, but most of us will begin to employ it at least a little. The real question is how we can use these new tools to enhance our art and help us better communicate our messages.

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Artist and Artisan—the Differences

Sunday, 7. May 2023 21:51

A number of years ago, I posted an article entitled “Artist or Artisan?,” wherein the differences between the two were explored, relying extensively on the ideas of a painter, John Stillmunks. With all the hubbub about artificial intelligence, I thought I would pose the same question to OpenAI via ChatGPT. So I posed the question in this form: “In an essay of approximately 500 words, explain the essential difference(s) between an artist and an artisan. Document all quotations.”

This is the response (which came in seconds):

Artists and artisans are both creative individuals who produce beautiful and functional objects. However, the essential differences between them lie in their purpose, intention, and approach to their craft. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an artist is “a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as painting, sculpture, music, or writing, to produce works that are primarily aesthetic in nature.” On the other hand, an artisan is “a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.”

One key difference between an artist and an artisan is their intention. While both create objects, the artist’s primary intention is to express themselves and communicate a message to their audience. As noted by artist Jasper Johns, “Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it.” Art is a means of communicating one’s emotions, ideas, and beliefs through visual, auditory, or literary media. It is a reflection of the artist’s inner world, experiences, and values.

In contrast, an artisan’s primary intention is to create functional objects that serve a specific purpose. Their work is focused on functionality, rather than self-expression or communication. According to artisanal bread baker Chad Robertson, “The goal is not just to make great bread; it’s to make great bread that is accessible to everybody.” The artisan’s focus is on creating well-crafted objects that are useful and serve a practical purpose.

Another important difference between artists and artisans is their approach to their craft. Artists tend to have a more experimental approach to their work, exploring new ideas and techniques to express their creativity. They often work independently, outside the boundaries of traditional artistic styles and techniques. As artist Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Artists are free to experiment, push boundaries, and create their own unique style.

In contrast, artisans tend to work within the boundaries of their craft, using traditional techniques and methods that have been passed down through generations. According to ceramicist Frances Palmer, “I’m not a ceramic artist, I’m a potter. I make things that are useful.” The artisan’s focus is on mastering their craft and producing high-quality, functional objects that are both beautiful and practical. They often work within established styles and techniques, striving to perfect their skills and achieve excellence in their craft.

In conclusion, while both artists and artisans create beautiful and functional objects, their intentions and approaches to their craft are fundamentally different. Artists focus on self-expression and communication, while artisans focus on functionality and the mastery of traditional techniques. As noted by philosopher R.G. Collingwood, “Art is self-expression; craft is the expression of a tradition.” Both artists and artisans play an important role in our society, enriching our lives through their creative work.

It’s not a bad answer. I find it interesting that ChatGPT took the instruction, “Document all quotations” to mean “include quotations,” even though they were not all entirely relevant. Aside from that, the answer is complete and well organized, if not nuanced. That, of course may be the result of the prompt, which is itself not terribly sophisticated, but then I’m new to AI, and perhaps some massaging of the prompt might have resulted in a more refined answer.

Interestingly, the differences posited by ChatGPt are remarkably similar to those expressed by Stillmunks, although the emphasis is a bit different. And it’s interesting that Stillmunk’s main thesis still holds: “no, not everybody’s an artist (despite what they may think).” But we have to remember that at the end of it, it is still nothing but a label. We are free to cross the line in either direction, depending on the current project. No one ever said that we have to be either artist or artisan all of the time.

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Managing Information Overload

Sunday, 1. January 2023 21:35

It hits us from every direction, and there’s no end in sight. Every time we do a search on Google, we get far more information than we asked for, not only in the hits, but in the accompanying ads. Interspersed in news articles and at the end of the article as well are enticements to click for more information that may or may not be related to the article we were reading. Unless we have premium music channels, there are periodic ads pushing information at us. “Free” streaming services hit us with unrelated information at unannounced intervals, breaking our train of thought about the show we were watching. Nearly every web site is supported by ads that demand our attention. And, of course, for those who still read newspapers and magazines, whether digital or physical, there are ads scattered among the articles that are supposed to attract our attention.

It’s more than we can keep up with, more than we can pay attention to: information overload!

But what can we do about it—besides stick our head in the sand and ignore all incoming information? Not a very practical solution since some of us need information to operate, and some of us want information because it enhances our lives and allows us to make informed political and business decisions. So there must be some way to manage what information gets to us.

The first step we can take to reduce out input of information is to limit our sources of information to those we trust. We all have a list of those, but probably don’t restrict ourselves to the list because it requires too much thought and a lot of hopping about. If that’s the case, it’s time for the next step: get a news reader (just Google “news reader” or “RSS reader”) and select one of those. This is used to aggregate our sources which can be done by source or subject or both. Once done, all we have to do is go to the news reader to find our already-limited information. Most are cumulative and will retain links until marked “read.”

The second step is to set aside a time to interact with our reader. This can be done in one of two ways: one is to scan the items in your reader and mark articles to be read later either by using the reader itself or by transferring the links to an app like pocket, which is designed to do the same thing. The other method is to scan and read the articles that seem interesting or appealing right then.  I recommend the second method, having found that unless there is a specific time set up to read those “later” articles, we are likely not to do it. They just sit in the “to be read later” app or folder forever. And in some cases the links eventually go bad as sites clean up old information and delete old articles.

The third step is to exercise some discipline as we read those articles. Skip the ads, Don’t take the click bait. Read the article and move on to the next one that looks interesting. Otherwise, the time spent with our reader will become as overwhelming as the mountain of information we’re trying to restrict.

And there is nothing to prevent us from having multiple topics in our readers, or if there is a desire for even more separation, having separate readers for separate subjects.

Time spent setting up some sort of information input management is time well spent, which, of course, leaves more time for other activities, like making art.

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Yes, Voting Matters

Sunday, 6. November 2022 22:11

The Astros won the World Series. I know because two people texted to tell me. Otherwise I would not have known. Because I don’t follow baseball, I have no interest in who does or does not win the World Series, or any other game for that matter. Simply put, baseball does not interest me or impact my life.

Unfortunately a number of artists take the attitude toward politics that I have toward baseball. The difference is, of course, is that no matter how much we wish it, no matter how we try to ignore it, politics does impact our lives. Even those of us who are so absorbed in our work that we live like hermits, closing ourselves off from the rest of the world, particularly the news, will be impacted by politics in some way or another before we are done.

Given that, it would be well to pay at least a small amount of attention to what is going on politically and what the choices are in any given election, because if we don’t, we are likely to be taken off-guard by changes suddenly forced on us by the political system.

This year particularly, we need to look at the choices before us. Never have the lines been so clear-cut between the opposing parties. One party seems intent on establishing authoritarian policies, removing reproductive rights, eliminating Medicare and Social Security, reducing privacy rights, allowing hatred, bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism to govern public forums, and supporting failed theories of trickle-down economics. The other party is vociferously opposed to all of those things, and is taking what is to my mind a far more positive approach to solving the problems facing the nation by advancing practical solutions.

Again, if we think that none of these issues will touch us, we are sadly mistaken. Some of these policies have already been implemented at the state level, and have certainly impacted, if not us, someone that we know. So these are real issues that really impact our lives, not just talking points. The very least we can do is inform ourselves on the issues and of the threats to democracy that are now part of political discourse, and vote. Compared to the possible outcome of the current election, the time it takes to learn about the issues and vote is a very small investment.

And we should not hide behind the “but it’s only one vote” pseudo-defense. As a matter of fact, there are a number of elections that have been decided by a single vote and even more that have been decided by miniscule margins. So our votes do matter.

And this year they matter more than ever. This year there is an unambiguous difference between the parties and the outcomes they envision for the country. This year the choice is about what kind of country we will live in, perhaps for a very long time. This year the election is important, perhaps more important than any in recent memory, and even if we don’t campaign, or contribute, or volunteer, we need to do our part. We need to vote!

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Work-Life Balance for Artists

Sunday, 9. October 2022 22:23

Achieving a decent work-life balance is difficult for most Americans. If those Americans are in the arts, the task is even more difficult. The reason for this is, of course, is that most people who are in the arts are obsessive individuals whose primary obsession is the work they do. Given that, it is, of course, difficult to achieve any sort of work-life balance. This is the reason that artists historically have such bad family lives. They often feel compelled to spend more time on the play, composition, book, poem, sculpture, or painting than they do on relationships or family matters.

For many artists, art is all that matters, so art is their life. Everything else is secondary. In such instances, any kind of work-life balance is really impossible because such artists are working literally all the time—until they decide to take a brief break. But that’s all it is—a break, not anything approaching balance.

The key seems to be to set firm limits on the time the artist spends at work and they time they spend in other activities. For example, I know three artists who have achieved something of a balance in their lives. All are teaching artists as it turns out. One produces art as a part of his teaching load; one has reduced his artistic output to one faculty show per year: and the third does a mix of producing work as part of his teaching with a side job now and again. So I don’t know that we could label any of these full-time artists. Still they are making their living working in the arts and all three have achieved a balance of sorts between work and the rest of their lives.

Interestingly, they have all done it the same way. They have set limits by regulating their time at school as “work time” and their time away from school as “home time.” There is, however some crossover. Personal phone calls happen during work hours, and work phone calls happen during home hours. Of course, occasionally, work demands more than the scheduled time, and all three then put in more time for their work, but for the most part, the separation is complete, and all three seem to be content with their arrangements.

Then I know artists who also teach and produce art as part of their school work, who devote themselves to the work in the same way a completely obsessed working artist who was not a teacher might. These artists spend a great deal of time “at work” and even when they are officially “not at work,” they are still developing ideas and working at their art. They fall into that category of artists whose work is their life, and, as one would expect, their home lives are far from traditional and stable.

It is not the goal of this post to decide which of the artists mentioned has a superior life. That is a decision that each artist has to make for themselves. However, if we are to achieve any sort of meaningful work-life balance, we will have to follow the example of those artists who establish a set time and/or location for work, and devote the rest of their waking hours to other aspects of their lives.

Whatever way we decide to pursue art and live our lives is up to us, and it is not a one-size-fits-all choice. We must each find our own path and hope that the path we choose is fulfilling both in terms of our art and our lives.

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The Trouble with Taste

Sunday, 17. July 2022 22:35

A friend of mine, a professor of art, did an interesting experiment several years ago.  He had a book called The New Erotic Photography, which is essentially 591 pages of images that the editors, Dian Hanson and Eric Kroll, considered erotic. Looking through the book, he decided that some of the images were truly erotic and some were not. So he asked individual students to go through the book and place a sticky note on the pages with images that the students thought were genuinely erotic. Regardless of questions of propriety or the informal, unscientific nature of the experiment, the results were very interesting. Students marked 53 images. Only 14 pages were marked twice, 8 three times, and 1 four times; none were marked more than four times. Admittedly, there is no way to know the total number of students who participated in the experiment or, because of the limited number of colors of the sticky notes, how many images each particular student tagged.

I have done similar experiments myself: one with a book of paintings and sculptures, and one with photographs. The results were similar to the experiment that the professor ran. Only a few of the images really impacted me, and even fewer were sufficiently compelling that I would have hung them on my walls had they been available.

So what is the point of these stories? Probably something that most of us already knew: the appeal of art is unique and individual. Of course, there is some agreement on what makes a good painting or sculpture or photograph; otherwise any discourse about these arts would be impossible, but beyond that, deciding which art actually “speaks” to us is a very personal thing, conditioned by any number of variables unique to each individual, including, but certainly not limited to our sense of aesthetics, our experiences, our prejudices, and our sense of self.

Is it any wonder then that artists have such a difficult time earning a living from their art? The task of creating work that will appeal to a sufficient number of individuals enough for them to spend money to own that work is daunting at best and nearly impossible at worst—unless, of course, one is doing commissioned work. But in order to do commissioned work, one must become known. And that happens in any number of ways: making work and entering shows or contests or finding retail outlets that will handle work for a percentage of the sales, putting art on social media or any number of websites. Still the odds against making significant sales are quite steep.

Still artists have choices: they can modify their work to appeal to greater number of people, assuming they can figure out what will make their work more generally appealing. Or they can continue to make work that they want/need to make and hope that by targeting where they show it, they can reach an audience with similar taste.

Both paths have positives and negatives, and which path an artist chooses to take is strictly up to that artist. But the likes and dislikes of an audience must be taken into account in some way or the other if the artist is to be successful. And unfortunately, there are few formulas that will work because, as the old saying has it, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

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The Appropriate Response

Sunday, 3. July 2022 17:13

My Instagram feed is normally a quiet place where I can look at pictures and view things related to art—very different from my other social media feeds. This week, however, it blew up. A number of artists who have never published anything remotely political were not only publishing political statements, but very strong ones. The cause, of course, was the egregious series of US Supreme Court rulings that came out at the end of June. Collectively, they were just too much for many of the people I follow on Instagram, so they spoke out.

In talking with people who are normally the most pacific of people, I have found that a number of people have been depressed by the actions of the Court. Others are extremely fearful of the future of individual rights in the United States, particularly for women and people of color. Yet others are ready to take to the streets—with any number of potential outcomes. And some people are talking about emigrating, or at least moving to a different state. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like this before.

All of this led me to wonder what the appropriate response for an artist to such a setback in human rights should be. Of course, no one can tell anyone what a “proper” response should be, but perhaps some responses are more suitable than others.

The first and biggest question is whether we should use our artistic skills and imagination to produce political pieces that express our outrage, or despair, or fear. While each artist will have to answer that question for themselves, I do not think that such a move is absolutely necessary. A number of artists depend on their work for income, and to suddenly shift to political content would require the cultivation of a completely different audience, and that would, of course, take time and energy which may be better used elsewhere. This is not to say that we should not make political art. For some that might be the most direct and forceful response, and I certainly wouldn’t rule that out. But, for some, the downside would be too big.

What to do then? The first thing is what a number of artists have already done: speak out and continue speaking out—using whatever platform is available. Thus the numerous statements that came across my Instagram feed. Some have, or will want to demonstrate. The important thing, I think, is to be sure that those in power hear our voices. Some politicians have already heard the voices and have responded in a positive fashion. Speaking out—at least in this instance—may bring us negative feedback, but it may also bring us allies, which will make our voices all the stronger.

The other thing that we can do, while it still matters, is vote and encourage others to vote. There are a number of elections that were decided by a very small number of votes. And in these times, every election at every level of government is important. So we need educate ourselves about those who are running for office—and I cannot emphasize this enough—even the “smallest” office. They are all important. Once educated, we need to educate others, and get them to the polls. Our rights and freedoms depend on it.

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