Smile With My Oppressor

Art, as a tool of life and love, is available to all of us. We make use of it as both creator and consumer. Passions must be expressed and managed. Dreams must be interpreted. Sorrows must be soothed. Anger must be assuaged. Depression must be diminished. Love must be loudly proclaimed.

Art and passion are largely ignored in the conscience of daily life because they are surreptitious components of existence. We are often not aware of their presence:

  • If you are going to get a root canal you know that there will be pain and discomfort. To help with this an endodontist will often hang detailed pieces of art throughout the office to give the patient something else to think about. The mind wanders into the world of the painting not the anxiety of anticipation. In contrast, a car dealership wants you to focus on nothing but the car. Their walls are drab, grease-marked and devoid of interest. You have no choice but to look at the highly designed automobile. And don’t get me started on accountant’s offices — the most interesting artifact I’ve ever seen in one of those is a plastic snow globe.
  • The carpet in a funeral home has a dark field and richly detailed patterns and deep colors to help somber people with their lowered heads pass from thought to thought. A blank, solid-color carpet would be harsh, unfeeling and stressful to look at.
  • A high volume restaurant wants people to eat quickly, then leave. The music is structured to cycle through songs that motivate customers to leave. It’s just like the utility company that plays one awful scratchy song repeatedly while you are on hold for hours on end. They want you to give up on that $6.58 mistake on your bill out of sheer aggravation.
  • Had a run-in with the boss, a teacher, an enemy? Jump in the car; crank up the tunes.

My escape from stress is to read Harry Potter books. They are all quite long, easy to read, well constructed, and they transport me into another familiar world so I can forget about this one for a while. I am also an artist so I don’t just consume art, I make it.

An artist creates a product to express an idea or emotion. People who specialize in creating art have structured their minds and bodies to be suitable for the task. Amateurs too, conceive and produce art. All of us have the capacity to generate art, sometimes, without being aware we are doing it. Sometimes, whole communities cause art to thrive due to cultural standards existing within their shared experience.

In school I fell in love with the word, ‘zeitgeist’: it means “the spirit of the times,”or the common undercurrent of thought or a societal attitude present within a culture. The esoteric nature of a zeitgeist means that it is hard to define because of the ebb and flow of time and change, but those who are creative and tuned-in can illustrate it best. In society it often becomes manifest through artcreated at a particular time. The resultant artwork is a snapshot of the spirit at that moment. Think about the evolution of Rap and Hip-Hop music which came into existence through the zeitgeist of urban ghetto life. The social undercurrent of poverty, drugs, prison, guns, racism and death evokes imagery that is violent and crude, but honest. Honesty is holy even if it’s an ugly truth. Unexpected listeners such as teens from rural farms who have never even driven past a ghetto recognize the truth inherent in its form, and the passions evoked by these cultural artistic expressions. The music and its presentational style comes from a pure and honest evocation of a holy truth. 


Every person experiencing that life could give you a list of problems in their daily lives as well as lists of their dreams and aspirations. Making a list, complaining, reacting to death and misery simply isn’t enough to ease the pain. So, just like the metamorphosis of blues and jazz in previous generations, a new art form evolved into existence to make harsh reality bearable; rap and its stylistic successors came along to speak the truth of the urban zeitgeist. The spirit of that group, at that time, became manifest through the art of music and words.

It is the next evolutionary musical step begun in the Harlem Renaissance where queer clubs, forced into hidden dark corners of Harlem’s cultural shadows, provided a natural breeding ground for the Blues with it’s sexual double entendre and joyful put-upon sadness. Artists such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley, provided a foundation for the Blues stylistic form. It’s a long road from this lament in the blues standard from 1928, “nobody knows you when you’re down and out” to the forceful bluntness of “they don’t like my rhymes, see my style is like lecture, but I’d rather die, than smile with my oppressor.” from Lowkey, “My Soul” in 2011. Both recognize the (same?) problem through the context of art, while the attitude has changed over eighty-some years from “woeful acceptance” to “we are fighting here.” They both reflect the time and place from which they came.


  1. polishsalami says

    There is a quote by Nietzsche which popped into my head as I was reading this, which I saw just the other day:
    We have art so that we may not perish by the truth.

  2. says

    Art is all to me, always driven to create, especially in the midst of anguish, which I think is fairly common. My husband says I have ‘art eyes’, that I view everything through that particular lens. I expect he’s right, but I love that lens – the expansiveness of it, the curiosity, the wonder, and the acceptance.

    • odgraphix says

      If you go through life regurgitating the expected answers you give back what they expect. An artist searches for the other answers, creativity is bothering to search for, then finding and expressing the possibilities instead of the expectations.

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