It has been difficult for me to process the past week. Tomorrow marks one week since the election, which was five days after my dance company launched a fundraising campaign and three days after we held a small free performance. When the campaign launched, I felt hopeful that we would raise the (relatively) small funds necessary to create and present our work this year. When we performed, I felt content to bring the product of our hard work to an open audience. On election day, I drove to work looking at lines of voters and idly wondered what the day would bring.
Watching the results start to come in that night, sitting on the couch with my husband while he assured my mother “no, Hil’s still got this; early returns always favor Republicans,” I knew the results would not favor the Democrats. It’s hard to say how I knew, exactly. All I can cite is a general sense of unease that told me, no matter how many times people touted Trump as “the only man Clinton can beat,” she still wouldn’t. I went to bed on time that night, and woke to a not-unexpectedly changed future.
There’s so many reasons why our country swung the way it did, and I can’t understand or even conceive of all of them. I’m not interested in arguing about the electoral college (it’s antiquated), the popular vote (does this even matter?), or whether or not Clinton lost because she’s a woman (I don’t think so). I don’t care if Bernie would have won had he been nominated (who knows). People much more studied than I can make these arguments. I’m here to make a case for art.
As we journey into the Trump years, I’d like to echo John Oliver and say: this is not normal. Don’t fall into a sense of complacency, don’t drink yourself into oblivion, don’t go all nuts on legal Marijuana, don’t commit suicide, and don’t move to Canada. In the immediate days post-election, my husband couldn’t eat or sleep. He was ill thinking about all the ways our country is going to founder, and I can’t blame him (he’s starting to come out of it, slowly). We talked about staying, leaving, having a family, not having a family. I said that I couldn’t live with myself if I stayed and didn’t fight. It’s not an option to play it safe.
One of the ways I have of not playing it safe is art. I think art will prove to be one of the most important vehicles for subversion, mobilization, and resistance that we have. Art has always been at the forefront of revolutions, and we will need it to take its place here very soon. Here’s the hard truth, America: it’s time to drop the self-congratulatory, overindulgent, gratifying poptimism. Don’t get your nails done and forget about things. Get your hands on that new Tribe Called Quest album (We got it from Here), because that’s where we’re headed. Study up, so you’re not surprised when we arrive.
I’ll use dance, the medium I’m most familiar with, to provide further evidence for my claim. We can reach back to 1923 with Bronislavia Nijinska, who created a series of distinctly feminist ballets. One of my favorites is Les noces, and depicts a traditional Russian wedding from a somber perspective detailing female matrimonial duty. In 1932 Kurt Jooss, a German choreographer, created a piece called The Green Table. It depicts the failed peace negotiations of the 1930’s, tossing a group of humans further into war and tumult over a period of thirty minutes. Then there’s American greats like Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, Lester Horton, Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, and more. For an excellent piece on how these artists shaped American culture by providing a backlash against social injustice and two world wars, read this article. The WPA created something called the Federal Theatre Project that lasted from 1935 to 1939, the first governmentally-provided arts funding. Graham, whose stellar work in her Americana period is a direct result of this period (such as the gorgeous Appalachian Spring), went on to depict frontier life in a way that is ruthlessly optimistic yet full of fear of religion superseding all. Then of course there are more contemporary voices than I can name, like Bill T. Jones, Anne Bogart, and Rennie Harris, who constantly hold a mirror to society and question how our animal natures still get the better of us.
So let’s add art to the list of things to financially support. Donate to all of these places of course, but also know that when our economy starts failing again, arts programs will be the first to go. With them go arts teachers and professionals, organizations and companies. Hope, goodwill, beauty, challenge, and perspective all vanish. The cultural backbone of our society depends on art: I fully believe that art can keep the good in society alive and moving forward, even in the shadow of unenlightened leadership. Also, I’ve never found a better tool for developing interpersonal understanding than art.
There’s my case: art is an important societal element that we need to harness. Do your part. Don’t tune out and let four years pass you by.
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