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Writer merges environment, activism, art, politics

August 30th, 2012 under Arts


For Rebecca Solnit, the award-winning author participating in the Ballroom’s Marfa Dialogues this weekend, art and activism are entangled at the root.

She has, through more than a dozen books, cultivated a unique sensibility – in which an attention to beauty in art and nature never comes untethered from politics, and muscular political opinion is never loosed from rapture.

Solnit has ranged widely in subject matter, from a study of the first steps toward film technology to an inventive atlas of her home city, San Francisco. But her writing has been bound together by a focus on the importance of place and on the interplay of art and politics.

“Culture and politics are names we have for different corners of the same human activity,” she said. “Politics is how we express our deep cultural beliefs, and culture goes to the deeper strata out of which politics grows.”

Solnit found what she described as the “the braiding spiral, the scenic, meandering route” of her work in her second book, Savage Dreams, published in 1994. The book came out of her participation in large antinuclear protests at the Nevada Test Site, the “most bombed place on earth,” in the late 1980s and early 90s. She said the complexity of those events – in which Cold War and Native American histories intersected, in a stark and beautiful desert landscape – moved her beyond earlier boundaries, to integrate journalism, art criticism and personal essay writing. She realized, she writes, that “the sunset is no less beautiful when you are wearing handcuffs.”

“The test site taught me how to write,” she said. “It was such an overwhelming experience – the heat, getting arrested, the people coming from all over the world, the history of the atom bomb. It demanded everything I had, and it demanded it all at once.”

Rebecca Solnit. (photo by JIM HERRINGTON)

She said the test site also gave her “the West as a subject, as a home and as a big literary field in which there was a lot of room to explore, to describe and connect.” In her subsequent work, she has drawn out the West’s buried histories, its tangle of myth, contradiction and promise, even as she remains susceptible to its beauty.

Solnit’s first book focused on a cohort of modern California artists – and, as in the lives of those artists, writing about and from locations outside the East Coast centers of cultural authority has been important to her work.

“We tend to value the center,” she said. “That’s where the limelight is in the culture. But most of what’s exciting and interesting happens in the shadows or margins. To live in these parts of the country – where you face Latin America or Asia – is liberating for deeper kinds of creativity.”

While she can write about politics and contemporary culture in a clear-eyed and biting way, Solnit also maintains an attitude of hope – her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark, focused on “untold histories” of activist successes. And though the realities of climate change, which will be one focus of the Ballroom conversations this weekend, can be overwhelming in their scope, Solnit said she retains hope on that front as well. She said the issue demands a blunt appraisal of the effects of greed.

“It’s shocking that we’ve done virtually nothing in the 30 years since we’ve known we were in crisis,” she said. “And the simple reason is greed. We should be talking about greed in very direct ways from here on out. Watching all these entities who have so much do ruthless things to get more is one of the great obscenities of our time.”

Solnit said an increasingly busy schedule has kept her from spending as much time in the rural West as she did in earlier years – and that she was looking forward to her visit to Marfa and “getting some major spaciousness to make up for my lack of West.” She said the trip would also give her an opportunity to indulge a longstanding passion – for the movie Giant.

“I have an obsession with Giant,” she said. “It’s full of weird, radical, progressive values in a big, sloppy, wet, over-the-top Hollywood format. A great screed on race, class and gender – with cattle drives. How can you resist?”

Solnit will moderate a conversation on art and environmental activism at 1pm Saturday in the Crowley Theater. She will read from her work at 1pm Sunday at the Marfa Book Company.

A former resident of Alpine and Marfa, Andrew Stuart worked at the Desert-Mountain Times newspaper and at Marfa Public Radio before moving to a piece of land near the Guadalupe Mountains in 2009. He now serves as the editor (and only employee) of the Hudspeth County Herald in Dell City, Texas.

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