Photo by Karle Denny.

Labor and gift: the paradoxical power of the arts—announcing our all-arts print issue

Nikky Finney, author photo.

Welcome to Scalawag‘s Winter Edition 2018, our first-ever issue devoted entirely to the immense brilliance of our poets and our painters, our performers and storytellers!

This year showed us once again why our words, our songs, our imagery, our ideas are sacred resources. Art is the work of love, of safekeeping, of generating and rediscovering alternative presents and futures. We can think of no better way to end 2018 than to celebrate work that struggles with us, that insists on joy, tenderness and hopeful rage, even in the midst of casual horror.

The Southern art you will see in these pages—from Durham to New Orleans—is devoted especially to working class artists of color; we do so because we are black and brown and queer folk and white co-conspirators who want to share the souths that we know and love with all of y’all. To show that creative brilliance is never confined to pristine galleries. To show that our art is daily, breathing everywhere.

Regina Bradley, Author photo.

We’re covering everything from Créole Opera in New Orleans to celebrations of Comcáac New Year beyond and between the Mexican border. And we got some dope new work for y’all by Nikky Finney in South Carolina, Kiese Laymon in Mississippi, and Regina N. Bradley in Georgia.

To give you a little taste, we’re sharing our editorial on re-valuing art in capitalist economies that constantly devalue it, by our Engagement Manager (and marvelous poet), Alysia Nicole Harris.

We are so excited to put this work in your hands. Subscribe today to get it in your mailbox for the holidays.


The paradoxical power of the arts

Every artist intimately knows how much work creation is. Many artists describe creation as a compulsion. Others without this compulsion do not know the same hours of obsession, of trial and error, of research, and of tinkering. When they encounter the output, the devastating volta in a poem, the perfectly balanced composition, that arresting floor sequence of choreography, they describe it as a gift. And they are not wrong.

There is some instinctual knowledge of a gift-economy at work in the arts. Inspiration and talent are in fact gifts of God’s benevolence, given from the depths of the unsearchable places in order to illuminate, instruct, convict, heal, and transform. In his book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes that things that are given as gifts are expected within gift-economies to remain as gifts, passing from person to person. In the case of art, the gift passes from artist to the consumer-viewer. In capitalist economies, the focal point of any transaction is the transfer of products or goods from one entity to another. But Hyde’s thesis argues that in a gift-economy, the primary purpose of the transaction is not in the final location of products with new owners, but in the very exchange itself. The exchange of gifts between individuals establishes—and once established, preserves—the bond between individuals.

The prescribed goal of any individual in a capitalist economy is to increase their personal wealth and thereby ensure the capacity and the right to isolate oneself from the rest of the community on whatever grounds one so chooses. In contrast, the goal of a participant in gift-economy is not to increase individual wealth, but to increase intimacy and collective strength. The goal is to connect, to acknowledge the value of one another to one another. This value is inexact, which is why appraisals, wages, and the measuring of tit for tat have no place in between gift-givers. We give to our loved ones in recognition of the fact that we are bonded to one another. Our loved one gives back at some point—doesn’t matter when, or how much—to solidify that bond. The gift never truly belongs to one person. Rather, the gift symbolizes that we all in fact belong to one another.

This is the value of art. The work of the artist, like the cultural organizer, is to reconstruct at the level of individuals and communities any common bonds that have atrophied over time, or which have been directly targeted by unjust systems. Artists and poets and dancers and painters and musicians belong in liberation movements, opposing systems that constrain us and pit us against each other, because art restores communal bonds and empowers us to form new ones.

As a form of gift-giving and bond-making, art stands in contrast to wages. But this does not entail that making art is not labor. Nor does it mean that art does no work in the world.

As a performance artist, when I’m on stage I watch the work happen in real time. I watch words break down prejudices, tackle fear, unweave shame, and slice through the isolation and anonymity that clot American life. Through teaching a poetry class on empathy and joy, I have seen “problem students” re-engage with learning, and with others. My sophomore year at college I wrote a poem called “That Girl,” railing against my boyfriend’s misogyny and terrible treatment of me. For my next three years at Penn, men I did not know would approach me and confess that after hearing my poem, they apologized to girlfriends, exes, sisters, and mothers for not treating women with respect. One year, an 18 year-old girl thanked me for writing a poem called “Death Poem,” which helped her get over her crippling anxiety about death. A piece of art triggered in four minutes what years of therapy had been priming but could not accomplish alone. The therapist expected pay for her work. The artist was given only gratitude.

And yet, gratitude is an underutilized and deeply useful sentiment. In an aggressively-capitalistic society, gratitude can even be subversive. Hyde says that the proper response to the gift is one’s “labor of gratitude.” This labor of gratitude is expressed as generosity toward others.

This year, Scalawag redoubled our commitment to Southern arts with an artist-in-residence pilot program featuring Masud Olufani, one of the artists whose work you’ll encounter in these pages. Since then, we have continued exploring the power of the arts and amplifying the labor and generosity of Southern artists. We recently launched our first ever poetry series, “This Work Will Take Dancing,” which featured Latinx poetry from the South. But that wasn’t enough.

In celebration of the work which has touched and even indicted us, the Scalawag team decided to create a print issue dedicated solely to Southern artists and writers of color working across genres to interrogate, reimagine, and revivify our understanding of Southernness. This issue features full color photos, interviews, features, commentary, and more, including gorgeous new work by National Book Award Winner Nikky Finney, and powerful insights by cultural critic Kiese Laymon. If art is indeed a gift, what better gift could we offer this season? So welcome to our first arts and soul, arts and culture, arts and imagination, arts and we-gonna-fuck-shit-up issue. Feast your eyes, ears, and hearts.

You ‘bout to get this work.