2009: The Role of the Arts in a Nation that Has Called for CHANGE

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 20, No 1 (Spring 2009)

Claudine K. Brown
Claudine Brown wants us to shore ourselves up with knowledge and examples of how much arts and culture are linked to everything we do. With this in mind, she offers us her own kit bag of reasons for sustaining arts and culture programs—and it's a big bag.

The headlines in our newspapers proclaim in bold and glaring type, that we are experiencing a recession that may rival the Great Depression. The stock market has plummeted. One out of every ten families is facing foreclosure. Businesses are laying off workers in record numbers. Trusted financial institutions have gone under or received bailouts; and the automotive industry is struggling to survive. Cutbacks and cost-saving measures are being implemented at for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises. All over the nation individuals, businesses, public agencies, and social service organizations are tightening their belts and hoping that they will survive during these most challenging times.

In the arts community, leaders of organizations of all sizes, are being asked to justify spending money on the arts when so many people are out of work, don't have access to health care or retirement benefits, or are on the verge of losing their homes. Now, more than ever, the reasons for sustaining arts and culture programs in our nation are powerful and palpable. Though the arts and culture are often seen in isolation from other concerns in our society, they are inextricably connected to everything that we do and everything that we care deeply about.

I define art as “the spirit made manifest.” It is our energy, ideas, and greatest imaginings realized. It is the affirmation and application of our knowledge, talents and creativity, and the actions that make them concrete. Making art involves flexing our creative muscles. The more often we flex and use these muscles, the better we become at thinking creatively and acting on our ideas.

Culture is our beliefs, practices, rituals, and patterns. Culture is also what makes us a family, a neighborhood, a community, and a nation. While certain predominant characteristics can be attributed to specific cultures, these cultures are always evolving. Ours is a nation of parallel and overlapping cultures that are constantly in alternating states of cohesion and tension. However, it is not the tensions or our differences, but the ideals and beliefs we share that will both test and strengthen us. At this moment in the history of the United States, as we seek to define the cultural practices that will unite and sustain us over time, the arts and culture community has a powerful role to play.

Reconstructing Our National Identity

I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table, nobody'll dare say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,” then. Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed—I, too, am American.
—Langston Hughes

In November of 2008 when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, he inherited a nation that was ravaged by debt; and he pledged to unify and strengthen a nation that is still distinctly divided into red and blue states. Our individual beliefs about abortion rights, stem cell research, gay marriage, states rights, immigrants rights, the war in Iraq, and the growth of the prison industrial complex continue to divide us. But what unites us?

In every society, it is often the iconic, participatory experiences created by visual artists, media makers, performers, and musicians that help us see ourselves as one people. Artists provide an image to the world of who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming. They remind us of our need to rely on one another if we are to achieve greatness. Whether we come together on the national mall for an inauguration that includes performances by poets and musicians, or gather en masse to hear the Boston Pops on the Fourth of July, it is the art and often the poetry of great oratory that touches us at our core and renews our sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves.

The graphic symbol of our “star spangled banner” flying over Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to pen our national anthem. Whether it's “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by abolitionist Julia Howe Stowe during the Civil War, or “Born in the USA,” composed by Bruce Springsteen in 1984 as a commentary on our country's treatment of Vietnam War veterans, music and lyrics have been important markers of our survival and renewal during times of turmoil.

The American film industry has served as this nation's collective visual diary. Film is an easily accessible media that calls for short-term engagement. However, once we commit and engage, we carry with us settings, images, and characters that millions of others have also experienced. Film has a unique ability to shape our collective identity and we have historically acknowledged those works that affirm our sense of self. John Steinbeck's book the The Grapes of Wrath, which was made into a film by John Ford, showed us the dignity and struggles of sharecropper families during the Great Depression. The film, The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe's book, is an account of the challenges of the Project Mercury astronauts. It reminds us of a time when our country invested in itself and expanded our notion of the universe. A more contemporary example of the power of film is the Oscar-winning, Paul Haggis film, Crash, which demonstrates the complexities of race relations in our country today.

Now, more than ever, we need the stories, songs, and images that reveal our common struggles and our shared aspirations. When we experience inspirational and historical musical and theatrical performances in groups, we are able to actively participate and bond around our common experiences. We recognize ourselves in the narratives and songs; and over time, we realize that our collective stories are always in the process of unfolding. These stories of our shared struggles and common good are uniquely American. Works of art that illuminate and document our lives become standards and classics that are loved and admired by future generations. They give us hope and remind us of our ingenuity and resilience.

Teaching Our Children to Realize Dreams

Community organizations, often working in association with museums, aquariums, zoos, and art galleries, step forward to make it possible for young people to explore the arts and sciences, and to do so through deliberation and decision-making. Many individuals who went on to successful professional careers later attributed to these organizations their commitment to community responsibility, dedication to the arts and sciences, and faith in young people.
—Shirley Brice Heath

All over America, parents are taking their children to dance classes, piano lessons, choir rehearsals, art classes, and band practice. In addition to creating something that is new each time they engage, our children are learning about their own abilities to grow and change. They witness their own accomplishments over a month, a semester, a year. They learn the value of discipline and incremental commitment; and they are rewarded for their hard work and tenacity when friends and loved ones come to their recitals and exhibitions and cheer them on. Though every child who studies art will not pursue the arts as a career, children who study art learn important life lessons that can shape their world view and influence how they will approach the world of work later in life.

Children for whom art is a passion often make an early commitment and set goals that inform their life's work. They practice and rehearse for many hours each day. They audition and compete against children who are as motivated and as talented. They realize success and learn to cope with disappointment. While they are working to achieve their goals, they learn to appreciate excellence in others. They are self-motivated and simultaneously motivated by their teachers, peers, and the great artists who have come before them. Many grow up and pursue highly competitive careers that they have worked from a very early age to achieve.

Children who are passionate about the arts self-select activities to engage in during after-school hours that give them joy and strengthen their skills. Most young artists also learn to work in ensembles. Children who sing together create harmony, but also yield the floor to a gifted soloist. Young dancers learn about timing, pacing, and interdependence. Youthful mural makers learn to plan before executing their work. They assign tasks based on each person's strengths; and they learn about the value and practicality of taking on a large task together. All of these children learn to share credit for a job well done; and they employ these social and organizational skills in other areas of their lives.

Art centers that serve youth have historically taught their students more than art. The East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, California has developed a curriculum that exposes its students to world music as well as the interdependence and commonalities of cultures. At the Global Action Project in New York City, youth media makers also serve as leaders who work with community organizations to create high impact media. Youth in this country are taking classes and learning to sing in other languages. They are learning to create video games that teach players about the law and current social movements. They make films that document the histories of their neighborhoods. They study and paint the plant life that is indigenous to their communities. They make art from recycled materials, design playgrounds, reclaim vacant lots, and honor those who have died before their time. Participating in art programs allow children to spend their free time in safe places that encourage them to play, learn, imagine, and grow.

Designing Solutions for a Sustainable World

The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.
—Gaylord Nelson

The ozone layer is being depleted on our watch. The earth is warming at alarming rates. Industrial waste is fouling our water, and toxic emissions have led to an increase in upper respiratory illnesses among citizens in communities throughout our country. We destroy mountaintops when we mine for coal. We decimate forests and erode the land in our quests for more and more lumber; and we discard resources that could be recycled or reused. We are a wasteful society and waste is costly.

Sustainable design is one of our best hopes for a clean planet. Sustainable design involves rethinking commercial buildings, private homes, modes of transportation, and utilitarian objects in a manner that is eco-friendly. Sustainable design is the work of fashion, textile and interior designers, city planners, architects, and landscape designers. This community includes graphic artists, advertisers, industrial designers, and inventors. These artists are developing cost-effective design solutions that conserve energy. Green designers strive to meet societal needs by reducing our use of non-renewable resources.

Students at the Rural Studio, a program at Auburn University in Alabama, have built award-winning low-cost, private homes and public spaces using reusable materials that include, tires, wood scraps, carpet samples, and bottles as structural materials. A student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts' Interactive Technology Program is harnessing our everyday actions—such as walking and opening and closing doors—into energy. In Boston, the young people who are members of the Artists for Humanity community participated in the design of a 23,500 square foot EpiCenter, a 100 percent renewable energy, green facility. Designers are showing us that we can live energy-efficient lives in aesthetically pleasing environments.

As the people of New Orleans rebuild after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, university students from city planning and architecture departments have come to the city from across the country to plan and design sustainable neighborhoods that include homes and public spaces that are energy efficient. Artist Mel Chin is working with thousands of school children and local environmentalists to highlight the danger of lead contaminated soil in New Orleans; and local artists are documenting stories of survivors, including the many environmental health problems that families are coping with. All over the country, artists are working with environmentalists to arrive at design solutions that are affordable, practical, and innovative.

Giving Service to America

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
—John F. Kennedy

American artists have given service to our country during times of war and peace. Performing artists have raised millions of dollars to help farmers, persons with HIV-AIDS, and families that lost loved ones after the tragedy of September 11th, among many other worthy causes. Visual and media artists have designed posters, developed pro bono ad campaigns, created media, and donated work to many worthy charities. If we want to grow the potential of America's creative community, we have only to look to our past for a template for how artists can help us shape our future.

In 1935 the Works Project Administration (WPA) was established as a part of the New Deal to create jobs for citizens having a variety of skills and interests who wanted to help restore the nation after the Great Depression. The WPA created work projects for visual artists, historians, theater professionals, and writers. In each instance, these artists used their skills and served the public by painting, writing, and performing. However, many also engaged in research and cataloguing projects that provided us with historical records of the lives and work of diverse Americans. Artists benefited greatly from the WPA, and the country is still reaping the benefits of these artists' efforts.

In addition to supporting performances of all types of music in rural and urban communities, the Federal Music Project led to the evolution of the field that we now call ethnomusicology. Scholars researched and recorded traditional and folk music making it possible for us to hear the voices and experience the passions of Americans who were not a part of the popular canon. These projects provided work for artists and scholars who identified and preserved traditions that are authentically American.

Historians and writers participating in the Federal Writers Project wrote about everyday people, at home, at work, and in their communities. These interviews and short stories include accounts of some of the last African Americans and Native Americans who experienced enslavement; as well as oral histories from workers of all ethnicities who were sharecroppers, railroad workers, bridge builders, farmers, and steel workers. WPA artists and scholars honored the efforts of the individuals who built the infrastructure of our nation.

The WPA Federal Theater Project (FTP) was instituted in the hope that a form of theater would be created that would honor the lives and work of average Americans. Performances were created for audiences of all ages in several languages. Most notably, the FTP created the Living Newspaper, a series of plays written by a team of researchers about current events that educated the public about health issues and taught them about the implications of public policies and legal decisions.

In large measure, the FTP created a lasting legacy, and the tradition continues today in the work of Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Swamp Gravy in Colquitt, Georgia, Junebug Theater in New Orleans, Urban Bush Women in Brooklyn, New York and many other contemporary performing arts companies create plays and choreography that are based on community life. Their methods for engaging respectfully with communities, while creating performances that educate, mediate difference, and in some instances heal rifts, can be of use to community organizers working in all sectors of our society.

Today, StoryCorps, the Japanese American National Museum, Facing History and Ourselves, the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, and many other educational and cultural institutions continue to do this work. During a period where funding for archival projects is highly competitive, we need to document these stories more than ever. Our country is changing rapidly in the age of technology. Yet this same technology makes it easier, and less expensive for us to capture the stories of American resilience and the diversity of American life. Now is the time to learn from our past so that we can chart a new and inspiring future.

Imagining a Different World

My horizon on humanity is enlarged by reading the writers of poems, seeing a painting, listening to some music, some opera, which has nothing at all to do with a volatile human condition or struggle or whatever. It enriches me as a human being.
—Wole Soyinka

The arts capture our moments of triumph, truth, struggle, and pain; and they remind us of our ability to falter and get back up and keep trying. The arts bring us joy and move us to tears when we experience the exceptional voice of a great vocalist, the powerful image of a master painter, or the grace and athleticism of a truly accomplished dancer. Artists provide us with contemplative moments when we can quietly engage and reflect. They also provide us with moments of great exuberance when we want to stomp our feet, throw up our hands and cheer.

Artists have the ability to imagine the world as it could be, whether it is through their dreams of utopia or their creation of cautionary tales. George Orwell's 1984 reminds us of the perils of having a government that infringes on its citizens' fundamental freedoms. Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, explores the Salem witch-hunts and the implications of bearing false witness; and in Aristophanes' play Lysistrata, the women of Athens refuse to yield to their husbands' desires until they make peace. Artists embrace the absurd and the seemingly impossible and, in doing so, create new realities.

Ancient Egyptian artists created the furnishings, images, and tools for an after-life that they envisioned would be elegant, abundant, and regal. The Taj Mahal was a tribute to love that took twenty thousand workers more than twenty-two years to build; and the Sistine Chapel paid homage to faith and beauty in powerful visual narratives of the lives of Moses and Christ. These great feats of imagination, science, and ingenuity have delighted us throughout time and are tangible evidence of the realization of impossible dreams.

The written and spoken word has also transformed ideas into reality. The words and deeds of Mahatma Gandhi, a philosopher and humanitarian from India, influenced Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his quest for Civil Rights in this country. When leading the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was inspired by the soaring oratory and strategies of Dr. King. In 2007, a Chinese cast performed in a play by Clayborne Carson, based on the letters and papers of the late American civil rights leader. When Passages of Martin Luther King, was performed at the China National Theater, the play's director Wu Xiaojiang said of the audiences in China, “I think people will get a clearer understanding of this play's message… We may even find things worth borrowing for our own social advancement.”

Whether we encounter Russian ballet dancers performing with their counterparts from the United States, vocalists from across the globe singing in the chorus of Aida, or Cuban percussionists performing with drummers from Puerto Rico, Nigeria, and the South Bronx we can find commonality and community in the making of art. Through art, we learn to dream, build bridges, and create new worlds. Art stimulates dialogue that sometimes cannot happen in real time between the real individuals. Art also offers us the option of communicating in the cultural languages of sound, movement, and visual imagery that can capture the human spirit, transcend our differences, and create harmony where there was once dissonance. Making art is the work of visionaries. Art has the ability to liberate us all.

Claudine Brown is program director, Arts and Culture, Nathan Cummings Foundation.