For many of us, the tag “socially conscious artist” conjures up images of guitar-strumming prophets, crusading documentary filmmakers, and courageous novelists.
Yet semantically, that’s not quite accurate. These really are artists who attempt to make their audiences socially conscious. The label applies to their creations, certainly, but not necessarily to the creator. Often, their personal conduct goes unexamined, either because we assume it falls in line with their brave messages or, more likely, because we tend to see behavior as exempt from political concerns.
It remains unusual — indeed, borderline eccentric — to link our everyday actions to our professed wider beliefs. Whether it’s supporting local industries or buying organic or traveling green or avoiding businesses whose practices we find unsavory, a steadfast stance tends to elicit more incomprehension than praise.
I don’t mean to suggest that these actions are inherently better or more important than the production of activist artwork. Spreading awareness of societal ills is crucially important. But the potential for discord between private and public behavior is worth considering.
A socially conscious artist, technically speaking, could be a chef who cooks seasonal ingredients from local suppliers, a writer who prints double-sided, a painter who donates artwork to the local public school. A guitarist who plays a Gibson? That’s now less clear.
This August, the U.S. government staged its second armed raid (the first was in 2009) on the Gibson factories in Memphis and Nashville. The agents seized sizeable quantities of tropical hardwoods, principally ebony and rosewood. Durable, smooth and resonant, both materials are highly prized — and thus prone to exploitation. Ebony is especially threatened, and because the best-quality wood tends to come from the oldest trees, poorly regulated ebony harvesting can wreak considerable environmental harm.
But before we leap to any denunciations of heartless corporations exploiting third-world resources (“Are Gibson guitars killing the rainforest?” cries the BBC headline), it should be noted that the matter isn’t quite so cut and dry. Buried deep within coverage of the raids and Gibson’s response is the sheepish admission that the government wasn’t policing “conservation abuse” but rather “tariff coding.”
At issue is a piece of century-old legislation called the Lacey Act and an aptly named international tariff system, the “Harmonized Schedule.” Though both cover a fairly wide scope, Gibson’s violation, as detailed in a federal affidavit, stems from the specific size and cut of a shipment of Indian wood. The guitar makers weren’t endorsing the slash-and-burn destruction of primeval forests; they were purchasing materials that were legally harvested but not supposed to leave their country of origin.
Adding to the convolution, the Tea Party has now adopted Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz as a martyr for its anti-Washington cause. Given Gibson’s iconic status as a Nashville Stradivarius, the company seems perfectly cast in the role of wholesome Americana victimized by the feds. Juszkiewicz even took the stage at a rally, where he urged cheering crowds to continue the fight against “injustice and unfairness.”
Afterwards, though, his tone was less bombastic. “I’m a very strong believer in socially responsible sourcing and I think the government needs to be involved to ensure that happens,” he told a reporter — hardly sentiments to rally conservative die-hards.
All of which goes to say that the buying of a Gibson has become an incredibly fraught political act. It may be destroying the rainforest, or it may be striking a blow for liberty against the tyrannical feds. It may be supporting an American company at a time of national economic slump, or it may be empowering those who profit by shuttling luxury goods from impoverished producers to wealthy consumers. Of course, if the buyer plans on performing protest songs with the instrument, the ideological tangle gets even worse.
A cause célèbre tends to arise from a magnification of particulars — the half-obscured name of a hunting ground or select lines of an initiation chant. Brought into the light, these details in turn illuminate a moral or ethical truth.
Yet in the Gibson case, close examination doesn’t clarify. It complicates. It highlights strange alliances between anti-regulation libertarians and aesthetes who demand access to high-quality luxury goods. It pits artists against conservationists. And it suggests the difficulty — or even the impossibility — of unambiguous personal politics.
We cannot expect ourselves to be consistent. What we can aim for, though, is consciousness. I’m thinking about the Transcendentalists denouncing ideology but still going to jail for ethically motivated tax evasion. Whether responsibility starts at home or on the street, in the guitar store or onstage, it’s useful to acknowledge the small hypocrisies of our professed views. And it couldn’t hurt, now and then, to celebrate those who try to close the gaps.