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Everything I know I Learned From Art


Having just watched No God No Master, a 2012 film about the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and, peripherally, the railroading and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, it occurs to me that everything I know about history I have gleaned from movies, novels, and song lyrics. Before seeing

Sacco & Vanzetti (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sacco & Vanzetti
(Photo: Wikipedia)

this movie, I did not know that Emma Goldman was deported from the US, never to return. I had no idea what the Palmer Raids were, and though I knew about Sacco and Vanzetti, I was fuzzy on the details (though I knew a bit from Holly Near‘s song Two Good Arms.)

This is not the history they teach in American schools—at least, it’s not anything I was taught.

Thanks to Doris Lessing I know something about colonialism in Africa. I learned about the French Revolution from Marge City of DarknessPiercy‘s City of Darkness, City of Light. I know the history of India from dozens of novels by Indian writers, most notably A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and, to a lesser extent, the film Gandhi. Recently I’ve gotten a dose of Nigerian history from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lest anyone think I’m swallowing works of fiction or Hollywood productions whole, I almost always look up the facts online afterwards; even before the Internet, I did my homework, especially when writing book reviews: I compared Piercy’s details in the abovementioned book to those of historians Will and Ariel Durant—Piercy, who does exhaustive research for her novels, was remarkably faithful to the facts.

When I was in my teens, my twenties, and beyond, I read so many books and saw so many movies about the holocaust and slavery that they no longer fascinated but enraged and depressed me, until I finally swore them off; besides, I could probably write up a syllabus for each. Recently I added domestic violence to the list; having worked in a battered women’s shelter some years ago, I don’t need anymore painful education in that department either.

I don’t listen to music, read literature, or watch movies in order to learn, but because it’s what I love to do. Still, it makes me furious that I wasn’t taught important historical events in school, where they just threw dates of wars and generals at us, not to mention lies about our country. It just goes to show that in the end, as Virginia Woolf noted, it’s the artists who’ll save us.



2 responses »

  1. I could echo this except during the 70s I completely re-educated myself in Marxist/socialist/feminist study groups. And I discovered that many of the films and books I’d “learned” from carried the same toxic ideology: especially about women! Think of “American Sniper” today as an example of books that MISinform and MISeducate. I sometimes realize I base all my understanding of male-female romantic relationships on movies, without even thinking so. I agree that art is powerful beyond comprehension in carrying values and creating “alternate pictures”–thus all art is propaganda, i.e., propagating a view of life. We usually call art propaganda only when it’s propagating a viewpoint we dislike and resist and have vilified.
    I directed theater plays for 30 years with a conscious feminist/socialist intent to undermine the ideology of oppression. I cast heavy-set powerful girls in “ingenue” and “romantic lead” roles. I never prettified prostitution. I sometimes changed the gender of roles in either a famous play (Shakespeare) or an unknown play. And still the way art creeps into our consciousness is mysterious and poorly understood. Especially by us artists? The advertising world (and the Republican party/ Tea Party) hire experts in it.

    Interesting post. Thanks. And, by the way, I don’t know how my Google account user name became “Wichita” instead of “Juanita.” curious.

  2. Juanita, you once said we are sisters, and this proves it. I did the same thing in the 70s, including performing in a feminist theater group! Great comment.

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