Normal History Vol. 505: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 34-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

I recently heard a rather stodgy (white, male) musician say that music isn’t activism, that satire isn’t activism. And here’s me trying to decide whether to call something “social” and “cultural” activism. Wow! Turns out these things may not even exist! What about political songs that succeed in changing the world? What if words honed and delivered satirically do alter the course of history?

Actually, I consciously avoid asking questions to challenge men’s ideas. It puts me in the position of not knowing and gives them the opportunity to respond.

Paintings, songs, satire, stand-up comedy, films, cartoons, plays, novels (graphic and otherwise) and poems are all forms of activism, but we don’t have a Richter scale equivalent to determine their impact.

Rock Against Racism
punk – the Raincoats, the Slits, X-Ray Spex
Riot Grrrl
Rock for Choice
Pussy Riot
Riot Grrrl 2.0

I think what the male musician (a music professor) perhaps meant is that he hadn’t succeeded in changing anything with his music—therefore music isn’t activism.

Over our nearly-35-year history, David and I have considered our output to be activism. At this particular juncture, David’s work is very obviously political, with measurable success in terms of distribution and reaction. We can safely say that his work has an impact, but even when our work fails—or is categorically ignored —it’s still activism.

These days my work is not as overtly political (and is probably less a form of activism) than David’s work. In the ’80s and ’90s, I was a writer and performer of political songs that audiences found energizing and useful, but, for whatever reason, interest in my work dwindled. Then I wrote novels that intended to make a dent in important issues, but they were not published. After enduring a slew of stupid part time jobs, I now I paint portraits and sell them on Facebook while constructing ways to use my remaining clout to open a free artist residency where small groups of people inspire each other to take a chance on cultural activism, but there doesn’t seem to be much interest in the project as I’ve outlined it. A project of this magnitude requires patience and tenacity, but the fact is I don’t need the oodles of cash I’m making selling paintings, and I want to create an unconventional facility to bequeath to future generations of cultural activists.

“Who Shot Elvis?” from Who Shot Elvis? (Matador, 1997) (download):