James Baldwin on the role of the artist
“Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Last week, we peeked inside Eva Hesse’s diaries. This week, James Baldwin’s creative process.
James Baldwin (1924–1987)
One of Baldwin’s great themes as a writer was self-examination. Repeatedly, in his essays, he stressed the necessity of individuals doing the difficult work of seeing themselves as they really are. Only then, he argued, can change occur at a societal level. As he wrote in “The Creative Process” (1962): “We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations.”
For Americans, telling the truth about the past inevitably means recognizing the centrality of white supremacy in the nation’s history and institutions. Beginning to undo this system will require, Baldwin wrote, “the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure.” But, again, he argued that the starting point was self-examination: acknowledging and accepting one’s shortcomings, fears, and the “labyrinth of attitudes” individuals adopt to shield themselves from reality.
None of this is easy. “The barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed!” Baldwin wrote. “There are so many things one would rather not know!” And the role of the artist, he thought, is to break down this barrier. In a 1961 radio interview with Studs Terkel, Baldwin explained how this works: