When Pete Seeger died in late January, the labor movement lost a powerful voice for workers’ rights. Pete participated in countless rallies and protests over several decades of activism, bringing his songs of rebellion and hope to the fight for social justice. Our work is solemn business. With human rights on the line, the stakes couldn’t be higher. But as Pete so beautifully demonstrated, our work need not be joyless.
Besides, there are many ways to carry a message. Ralph Fasanella’s paintings depict workers’ lives at home and on the job. Martin Ritt’s movie “Norma Rae” portrays southern textile workers fighting to unionize. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath describes the struggle to survive after the Dust Bowl and bank foreclosures force tenant farmers off the land. Each in its own way makes us think about the world as it is, and as it should be.
The influence of the arts
Our own union rep John Pietaro is a formally trained musician. He helps NYSNA members on Staten Island to build nurses’ power, and he makes music to advance the cause of social change. Primarily a percussionist, John has led and been in many bands and he organizes the Dissident Arts Festival every August. “It became obvious to me long ago that these things shouldn’t be separate tracks in my life,” he says. “Activism should always be connected to the arts. There’s never been a successful revolutionary cause that didn’t have the influence of the arts.”
Art that challenges
Art, says John, should challenge us. “When we think of protest songs, we think of guitars and banjos, Pete [Seeger], Woodie Guthrie, Joan Baez. I find this music deeply moving.” Harry Belafonte’s voice resonated for civil rights. Music reflects, and inspires, social movements. From Stevie Wonder, to Bruce Springsteen, to many of today’s hip-hop performers, the messages imparted are progressive. That banner has been passed to a new generation of contemporary artists calling for change.
“Whether it be a painting or a play, street theater or punk rock, if the art is something that challenges the audience in some way, that makes people think and feel moved, that’s important,” contends John. “The arts should be a social statement; they should comment on what’s happening, and present an alternative. If it doesn’t inspire, then how does it matter? If art doesn’t carry you, if it’s just background noise, just wallpaper, why bother?”
Pete Seeger understood this. He made music to feed the activist soul, to help people connect, and to fuel our commitment to progress. That’s fine art indeed.