Friday, July 8, 2016

Artists in a Time of Violence

As I write this, tonight I'll be getting on a stage and doing my best to portray Pa Joad in a Houston production of The Grapes of Wrath. This final week of rehearsals has been rough, not only for the usual final week stress any theater person knows about, but for the news in my home country, these United States.

Police killing black men, snipers retaliating on police, presidential candidates who increasingly give me little reason to have confidence in them . . . those are the top stories this Friday morning. They are very distracting to me as I'm trying to focus on the work at hand, this art work that I've taken on.

This morning, I was chatting online with my colleague in art-making, Misha Penton. I expressed my feelings with my usual twist toward the ironic by saying:

Tell me, how am I supposed to go put on light summer entertainment about starvation, refugees from natural disaster, and death with all this happening in the world?

Because I have smart, sensitive, empathetic friends, she saw through the ironic phrasing and gave me this answer:

Because it matters that we keep putting art into the world. 


In fact, I might say, the most important thing for you to do is go do your starvation American West play. 

The world needs plays. 

And music.

And dance. 

And paintings. 

Art is the only thing that truly teaches compassion. 

Get out there, son, and do your art thing. 

Because we often communicate in hashtags, I responded with:   #RightThingToSay

She knows I believe that. Misha knows I've said similar things in the past. And she knew I needed to hear it again. And so, with her permission, I quote her now and put it into the broader world, particularly to artists, because maybe all the artists need to hear it too.

This is our time, artists. We need to look at the world and tell stories, create images, invent movement that puts compassion into our culture.

This is no easy call to action. The temptation is to present violent art in response to our current situation. I'm going to opine here that this is not what is needed. I've ever believed that if art can move us to good, it can also move us to evil. I would never tell you what you should and shouldn't make, but for every Guernica, which depicted war in such a way as to move people away from it, there are countless instances where art has glorified war and violence, inspired people to take up arms or made them fearful enough to do so. So, artists, in this time where we need to exercise our power, I urge you to carefully, carefully consider how you portray violence. Really, I'm begging you to approach this with all the compassion and peace-making you can muster. This is the power we need in the moment.

How do we do this? In all the many ways we make art, really. It's a problem to solve and as Houston-based choreographer and art educator Jane Weiner often says, art-making is problem solving. We can put all our creative energies behind the problems of the day and we can find solutions. Put another way, art-making is solution-making.

This is idealism, perhaps, but it's also imagination. Everything starts with imagination. If you can't imagine it, it can't happen. It took imagination to develop a stop sign, how it would work, how it would create some small order on our roads. It takes imagination to decide to . . . do anything. It takes imagination to take up a paint brush and it takes imagination to take up a gun. What world do you imagine? That imagination shapes the world, from stop signs to galleries to pulling a trigger.

What world do you imagine?

Act on that.

For now, I have to spend the afternoon preparing to create compassion and empathy for refugees from a natural disaster as they face police brutality, starvation, and death. It's what I have today.