US President-Elect Donald Trump took aim at the theatre and artists over the weekend, so all the sins is firing back.
Vice President-Elect Mike Pence attended the Friday evening show of Hamilton: An American Musical. The production tells the story of the first US Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who was a Caribbean immigrant to the US and played a crucial role in the development of the nation. As Pence rose to leave at the end of the show, the cast read a statement to him:
Trump promptly overreacted on Twitter and sent out a series of tweets that included a demand that “the Theatre should always be a safe and special place.”
As a magazine for the arts, and one with our name, we are particularly uncomfortable with this claim. We would argue quite the opposite, in fact. Art, excellent art, tells the truth and truth is always dangerous to power. Art demands to be heard and it touches us in ways that facts and figures do not. It can inspire and empower and this is dangerous to the status quo.
Art speaks to our shared humanity. Art celebrates our diversity. Art tells our stories. Our happy stories, our sad stories, the stories that make us proud and the stories that bear our shame, the stories that insist we do better.
Perhaps there is no better example of this in popular culture, right now, than Hamilton. With its ethnically diverse cast telling an immigrant story, it challenges its audiences to look at America in a way we do not often (ever?) see reflected in mainstream media. Hopefully, it also encourages audiences to question why non-white faces are missing from our taught and accepted history. And whether the ones we do learn about are accurately represented. This is art that should make us question, at a minimum, the lack of diversity both in the campaign rhetoric of the Trump/Pence ticket and in the staffing of the president-elect’s team.
Setting aside the perfectly reasonable tone of the cast member who delivered the speech and content of the message, there is something more sinister at work here. Throughout history, the treatment of artists has long been a bellwether of how the rest of the population will be treated. Telling artists that their medium, a musical that celebrates diversity and immigration, is not an appropriate place to voice concerns is dangerous to everyone. The artist’s responsibility is to speak out, to ask questions and to challenge the status quo.
If Trump is trying to silence artists, you can be confident that the only move from here is to silence all voices of dissent.
As long as unscrupulous people have tried to silence artists, however, artists have risen to the occasion and fought back with critical, subversive and dangerous art. This art has often been a lifeline through dark times and has certainly played a roll in toppling oppressive governments. The step dancing featured in this quarter’s theme article came out of repressed art in South Africa and the slave plantations of the American south. Poets in communist Romania wrote in what they called ‘the lizard language’ to disguise their political criticism. And, of course, there is satire, from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Spitting Image and Saturday Night Live, which has also become a Trump target in recent weeks.
Art like this challenges the establishment and reminds its audiences to do the same. Good art, in all its forms, keeps things uncomfortable. Now is a time when we need to constantly remind ourselves that this is not normal; there are other ways; we cannot blindly accept what we are told. Being uncomfortable is good. As any artist knows, your best art makes you uncomfortable, even terrifies you. The minute you get scared, that’s the time to push on, even harder, because you might just be on to something.
So all the sins is issuing a challenge to all the artists out there: Stand up. Speak out. Create. We’re here and we’re open to challenging, dangerous art. We don’t believe in safe spaces for power. We believe in art and truth and danger. Sin against the status quo.
Many thanks to Rebecca Robinson for the featured image on this article, which is a photo of her work, The Pin is Mightier than the Sword. Rebecca uses ordinary, discarded and found objects to create art that is a simple expression of a complex idea , underpinned by extensive research. Her installations employ hands on methods, small repetitive gestures and low-tech materials and are often extravagantly inefficient in time and labour thus questioning notions of perceived value, division of labour and mass consumption. You can find out more about her work and workshops at www.rebecca-robinson.com