“This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” Toni Morrison wrote in her electrifying case for the artist’s task in troubled times. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. That is how civilizations heal.”
But in such times of civilizational trauma, when the book of life itself seems to have come unbound, where are artists — who are not only human but perhaps the most human among us — to find the fortitude of spirit necessary for rising to their healing task?
Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and writer Courtney E. Martin offer a heartening answer in a collaboration that stands as a mighty manifesto for our time and a testament to the only mechanism by which the creative spirit has ever pulled humanity out of every abyss of its own making.
This is your assignment.
Feel all the things. Feel the hard things. The inexplicable things, the things that make you disavow humanity’s capacity for redemption. Feel all the maddening paradoxes. Feel overwhelmed, crazy. Feel uncertain. Feel angry. Feel afraid. Feel powerless. Feel frozen. And then FOCUS.
Pick up your pen. Pick up your paintbrush. Pick up your damn chin. Put your two calloused hands on the turntables, in the clay, on the strings. Get behind the camera. Look for that pinprick of light. Look for the truth (yes, it is a thing—it still exists.)
Focus on that light. Enlarge it. Reveal the fierce urgency of now. Reveal how shattered we are, how capable of being repaired. But don’t lament the break. Nothing new would be built if things were never broken. A wise man once said: there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Get after that light.
This is your assignment.
Perhaps inspired in part by Sol LeWitt’s famous “DO” letter, and reminiscent in spirit of the Holstee manifesto and Neil Gaiman’s iconic Make Good Art speech, this vitalizing call for creative resilience began in response to the political turmoil of 2016, which left so many so dispirited. Hungry for a counterpoint to the despair and apathy of the cultural climate, Martin and MacNaughton created one themselves. Written shortly after Leonard Cohen’s death, the manifesto ends with a tender homage to his famous clarion call for democracy.
Martin, who has advocated beautifully for reimagining our cultural ethos of successand who wrote most of the “FOCUS” piece while walking in the desert of New Mexico with a newborn strapped to her chest, explains:
While creating it, we imagined people hanging this poster on their office and studio wall as a reminder that they are not alone in their sadness and fear, and that they must must must keep doing the work. It matters.