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What the Chilean Miners Taught Me

October 25, 2010 ·

The most salient connection between progressive politics and art is imagination.

I’ve spent much time of late wondering about the connections between progressive movements and art.  I recognize how grand a statement this is, combining, as it does, an ill-defined political perspective with a term that encompasses the sum of creative expression.  Still, there is a long history of art-infused political action on the left in America; I’m thinking especially of the civil rights movement which, in some ways, represented the apotheosis of the arts and politics mixture.   Who can forget the images of luminaries like James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte participating in civil rights marches across the country, or the sounds of movement leaders singing We Shall Overcome?  In this decade, many of us spent hours staring at Shepard Fairey’s once iconic (and now, inevitably, oft-parodied) depiction of then Senator Obama as a heroic figure swathed in red, white and blue. 

Yet something occurred to me as I watched the Chilean miners ascend from their temporary prison below the earth to their families and throngs of waiting press above.  I realized that the most salient connection between progressive politics and art is imagination.

This was surely an odd time to be struck by such a revelation.  First, the rescue itself was an apolitical affair, carried out by people of various political beliefs (one would assume) who’d descended on Chile from locations around the world.  Second, although we occasionally heard singing in the background as reporters described the rescue in minute detail, there wasn’t much art.  However, each time I read an update about the progress of the workers who were attempting to rescue the miners, or saw pictures of the families waiting and hoping, and then, last week, when I saw the miners ascend one after another from the ground, I realized that the trajectory of this particular story approximated, in micro, the popular movements that I grew up reading about in school.  I reveled in the miners’ victory because it represented the triumph of imagination over the seemingly unalterable rules of reality. 

I became fixated on the power of imagination as I watched the story unfold, and the way imagination can sustain a vision of brighter possibilities, even when such possibilities seem, well, impossible.  The same type of imagination that sustains art – that enables someone to, say, shape a new reality on a blank page, canvas, building wall, from a piece of clay – sustains progressive movements.  This link is important for many reasons, not least of which because contemporary progressive movements all struggle to sustain a kind of prophetic vision about a future that could happen, not the kind of future that probably will happen if things remain the same.  As I saw the miners celebrating with their families, I couldn’t help but think how heartening it was to see a group of people work towards a common goal, understanding that they could fail, and imagining, all the same, that they wouldn’t.