The Art of Imagination
“Democracy to me means possibility. A system of living where the citizens can “reach for the stars” and create a place that they want to live in, where they have the power to paint the government as they want.” – Lexi M., Engineering
In the quote above, Lexi suggests that democracy is an exercise in collective imagination, creation born out of possibility. In particular, she casts this in artistic terms – the people can “paint” the government as they want. In thinking about this comparison – of political cooperation to a sort of blank canvas – I thought of the many artists and thinkers who have emphasized the power of art as an act of creation – something we may take for granted, but which, to these thinkers, offers serious political possibility.
One of the writers who most clearly articulates and strongly advocates for this line of thinking is the brilliant Audre Lorde. In her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury,” Lorde writes:
“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action… And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”
Poetry as “the skeleton architecture of our lives” – a sort of groundwork in which that which is not yet real in the world can be thought, imagined, created, if only in language. For visionary thinkers, this allows poetry to become the groundwork of alternative world. For example, in her poem “Field Trip to the Museum of Human History,” Franny Choi (a Michigan alum) imagines that the language, objects, and symbols of modern policing are relegated to an exhibit in a history museum, to be viewed by an audience of children to which our current system of policing is entirely foreign:
Everyone had been talking about the new exhibit,
recently unearthed artifacts from a time
no living hands remember. What twelve year old
doesn’t love a good scary story? Doesn’t thrill
at rumors of her own darkness whispering
from the canyon? We shuffled in the dim light
and gaped at the secrets buried
in clay, reborn as warning signs:
a “nightstick,” so called for its use
in extinguishing the lights in one’s eyes.
A machine used for scanning fingerprints
like cattle ears, grain shipments. We shuddered,
shoved our fingers in our pockets, acted tough.
Pretended not to listen as the guide said,
Ancient American society was built on competition
and maintained through domination and control.
In place of modern-day accountability practices,
the institution known as “police” kept order
using intimidation, punishment, and force.
We pressed our noses to the glass,
strained to imagine strangers running into our homes,
pointing guns in our faces because we’d hoarded
too much of the wrong kind of property.
Jadera asked something about redistribution
and the guide spoke of safes, evidence rooms,
more profit. Marian asked about raiding the rich,
and the guide said, In America, there were no greater
protections from police than wealth and whiteness.
Finally, Zaki asked what we were all wondering:
But what if you didn’t want to?
and the walls snickered and said, steel,
padlock, stripsearch, hardstop.
Dry-mouthed, we came upon a contraption
of chain and bolt, an ancient torture instrument
the guide called “handcuffs.” We stared
at the diagrams and almost felt the cold metal
licking our wrists, almost tasted dirt,
almost heard the siren and slammed door,
the cold-blooded click of the cocked-back pistol,
and our palms were slick with some old recognition,
as if in some forgotten dream we did live this way,
in submission, in fear, assuming positions
of power were earned, or at least carved in steel,
that they couldn’t be torn down like musty curtains,
an old house cleared of its dust and obsolete artifacts.
We threw open the doors to the museum,
shedding its nightmares on the marble steps,
and bounded into the sun, toward the school buses
or toward home, or the forests, or the fields,
or wherever our good legs could roam.
© Franny Choi 2015
This poem forces and allows the reader to imagine what might be unimaginable to us in the present. Therein lies the potential of visionary poetry – harkening back to Lorde’s terms, it allows us to lay the sketetal architecture of an alternate world, articulating what had not previous. While a piece of art itself may not realize this alternative social order, it can imagine it, planting a seed and contributing to the multifaceted forces of social change. But furthermore, this theory of visionary art suggests not only the political implications of an artistic work, but treats political itself as an artistic process – for if political transformation, after all, inherently requires acts of imagination and creation, then we might very well conceptualize art not just political, but politics as an art.