Art and Politics
By Charles Beavers, Executive Director
It is November 2, 2020, Jeffrey and I just registered ourselves for a webinar on “Fundraising in a Pandemic Environment,” I just ate lunch alone in the greenroom, and like most days since March, I am the only person in the building at Theatre Three.
Tomorrow is election day, and while I suspect most Americans are feeling some form of anxiety surrounding the election and campaign season, I keep thinking back to a debate I had in graduate school.
“Is Art Political? Should Art be Political?”
This was the prompt Dr. Gallagher presented to my cohort of international students studying arts management.
This debate and discussion sticks out in my memory for a couple of reasons: 1) I repressed my typical type-A, loud-mouth, brash, almost trumpish personality and chose to listen for the first half of the group debate without talking, 2) when I did choose to interject myself, I began with “I love you but I wholeheartedly disagree,” and 3) in the midst of a heated election cycle and an economically devastating and gruesomely deadly pandemic, I sometimes wonder if making theatre matters.
This debate prompt and those three ideas continue to swirl in my head, and I feel a little more resolute in my rebuttal in this debate:
[paraphrasing another student: I think some art is political but there are too many factors at play to always know if the art is or is not political]
I love you, but I wholeheartedly disagree. To say some art is political and other art is not is to admit and be complicit in one’s personal bias. All art is political. Feel good shows like Oklahoma are just as political as any absurdist, avant-garde, Da-Da-ist, anarcho-political piece of art.
[an attempted interjection]
Let me finish my thought. Shows that state that the status quo is good, right, or otherwise correct is political. It is saying that the socio-political framework it represents is correct and good. This is especially subversive and dangerous when the piece is dated and uses nostalgia to promote its politics.
For art to be political it doesn’t have to be negative or ridicule the status quo. It does not have to be contrarian. Art at its most simple is indicative of the artist, community, and time in which it was created and is thereby political.
These memories are perhaps trying to explain how and why the work I do with Theatre Three matters. That the theatre is a place for communal reflection, introspection, and analysis. In a world where nobody seems to agree on what is real or fake and trust seems to be at a historic low, I suspect that we all could use a little more theatre. A little more introspection.
A glimmer of hope that these memories provide me is centered around a comment Dr. Gallagher makes almost every time we speak, “I will never forget the way you entered that discussion in class,” she says with a coy smile. Like a forgetful student, I feel like I always reply with confusion. In her own very poignant style, Dr. Gallagher reminds me over and over again, “when you started with, ‘I love you but I wholeheartedly disagree,’ I realized that was something that has gone missing in contemporary debate and conversation.” She was referring to empathy. Empathy is a skill and like a muscle if it is not used it atrophies. The arts are essential to teaching and exercising empathy.
I hope that regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, we come back as a community of American citizens again. I want more than anything for the American celebration of debate and discussion to stay alive and be re-centered on fact rather than emotion and conjecture.
I firmly believe that at the heart of these hopes and dreams for a better future are the arts.
Theatre Three Archival Photo, 88-89 season, The Middle of Nowhere, songs by Randy Newman, book by Tracy Friedman. From left to right: Peggy Billo, Dennis Maher, Grover Coulson, Jr., Terrence Charles Rodgers, Keith D’Allgeier. FUN FACT, Dr. Dennis Maher was an undergraduate professor of mine!