As I was casually reading through my friend’s Facebook statuses on the afternoon of Jan. 12, my heart stopped when I saw Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, arguably the greatest political band ever, was to be speaking for free at Hammer Museum.
Thirty minutes later, I was standing in line at the Hammer Museum box office waiting to get tickets to the event. As I rushed into the auditorium to grab a front-row seat, it dawned on me that in my hurry to get to the museum, I had neglected to actually find out exactly what the Harvard-educated Morello would be speaking about.
As it turns out, I had found my way into the latest incarnation of the Hammer Museum’s Hammer Conversations, in which two high-profile thinkers discuss a variety of topics. This particular conversation was between Tom Morello and Sam Durant, a visual multimedia artist and California Institute of the Arts professor whose work focuses on cultural, social and political issues.
Before the two artists began their talk, they each displayed an example of their respective art for the audience to see. Morello played Rage Against the Machine’s music video for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire,” in which the band stages a politically charged performance in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Durant showed an image of his 2006 piece “Nationalism and Culture (Use and Abuse),” which consisted of an architectural model with background music alternating between pro-American patriotic music and clips of the music used to torture detainees at Guantanamo Bay (the music included songs from artists such as AC/DC and Eminem.)
The conversation began with both artists providing perspective as to how both of their suburban upbringings affected their artistic growth.
Durant recalled that when he was a child during the anti-war movement in the late 1960s, it was extremely “cool” to be political. It is this sentiment that Durant channels in his present day art, tackling topics from the Black Panther movement to the current border dispute.
Morello described his memories growing up in the predominantly white and conservative suburb of Libertyville, Ill., in which his Kenyan ethnicity distinguished him from his peers. The majority of his political education came from his politically active and liberal mother. His political beliefs would later put him at odds with the majority of his community, and were instrumental in his decision to found Axis of Justice, a nonprofit grassroots organization whose purpose is to not only to feed the poor and fight the power, but to rock hard. Morello would hate me if he knew I censored that.
After describing their personal backgrounds, the speakers discussed the timely issue of censorship in the arts. Both agreed that the recent spate of censorship seen in institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Smithsonian was incredibly troubling. Morello related his own stories of censorship, recalling that Rage against the Machine had many of its songs banned from radio airplay after 9/11, and speaking about the troubles the band went through since they refused to allow any of their albums or videos to be censored. He stressed that allowing artists to have creative freedom is essential to the advancement of culture.
Both artists then took the opportunity to explain exactly what art meant to them personally. Durant viewed art as a method of communication that allows him to say things that he cannot say in other ways. In terms of politics, he claimed that it is his belief that all art is political, whether explicitly or implicitly so. Morello, on the other hand, viewed art as a calling or purpose, something that he was meant to do and had known so from the second he picked up a guitar. According to Morello, in order to be a great artist, one must have a chip on his shoulder.
Durant and Morello rounded out the conversation by telling the audience their message for today’s youth. Durant said that artists such as Morello and himself are here to confront people with information, but they cannot force a reaction. It is up to each and every individual to view what is put in front of them, and then make a decision about it.
Morello insisted that the most important lesson that people need to learn is that they are currently engaged in writing history, and, as a result, each person has the capacity to make a difference in this world.
All in all, Hammer Museum’s Hammer Conversations provided me with a unique insight into the minds and lives of two prolific artists dedicated to social justice.