Art and Politics – A Long and Glorious History

In the February 11, 2015 issue of the Wall Street Journal, James Panero bemoaned the rise of protests aimed at Mariinsky Theatre (based in St. Petersburg) conductor Valery Gergiev and his silence regarding Putin’s anti-gay policies and the Russian incursion into Crimea. Panero made some bold statements. “Current events have now claimed a front seat on the culture, and it is time to stop them at the gate” he said, and declared that “a banner today may be a weapon tomorrow.” He also noted that “Protesters shouting down concertgoers; musicians silenced by hecklers; agitators taking the stages of our performances. All this represents a new turn in the relationship between arts and politics.” Apparently these sort of disruptions make Mr. Panero uncomfortable. He declares that concert houses need to do more to keep the audience “safe.” Really? Since when is good art safe? And I know he is referring to physical safety, but bear with me. Artists have long been among the voices of political dissent. Long before the civil rights protest songs of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the plays of Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, artists have been outspoken challengers of inequality and oppression. Commedia D’ellarte, with its roots in Greek and Roman comedies, at its core highlighted the foolishness of the powerful in society while underscoring the cleverness of the less powerful, lower class. It is right that audiences should expect more from art and artists than entertainment. And it is right that the artists should be called out when they disappoint. Artists have a unique relationship with their audience. A relationship that includes an unspoken pact that we will join the them in the journey; that we will pay attention to the story we are being told. We expect artists to challenge us, and to share with us truth and beauty. Good art is political. It is not safe. Art critic and philosopher Boris Groys said “Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics.”

Audience disruptions of performances are not, in fact, a new thing. From the disruption of the radical and experimental theatre of the Weimar Republic, the audience reaction to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or the more recent heckling of Bill Cosby, audiences have long considered it a right to voice their frustration with art and artists in the moment, whether the issue is quality, offensive material, idealogical clashes, or alleged criminal behavior. That is what makes art so exciting, we get to respond immediately. Convention says we politely wait for the opportunity to applaud, but God help us if we feel so restrained as to not react in the moment when compelled. So, no Mr. Panero, we should not stop current events from claiming its “front seat on the culture.” In fact, we should demand and expect it. I want artists to take a stand, to examine and comment on culture and politics, to challenge oppression, and to earn my trust in doing so. I also expect the audience to respond in kind; to be joyful, appalled, shocked, amused, enraged, and spurred into action, even if that means an immediate response. And if that artist has somehow lost the trust and confidence of the audience, if they have failed to fulfill the expectations of an artist and leader, I want the person next to me to leap onto stage and call them out. I am fine with the expectation that a prominent artist be held accountable for ignoring oppression or glossing over the truth. I would hope that I have the conviction to rise as well and join in the dissent. A concert hall, a theatre, a book of poetry, none of this should be a safe place free from scrutiny of politics and society. Of course the physical safety of an audience is paramount and appropriate precautions should be taken. But it is a long journey from “banner” to “weapon,” and we should never expect the world of art be free from political discourse. Thankfully, despite Mr. Panero’s call, I am fairly certain culture, politics, and dissent will always have a place in the concert hall and beyond.



Art and Happiness: New research indicates 4 out of 6 happiest activities are arts-related (!) by Clayton Lord

Last week, an article that was actually published nearly a month ago on passed through my Facebook feed four times in two days.  The article, titled “The three times people are happiest—you may be surprised,” rather vaguely discussed a research project out of the London School of Economics that was mapping happiness levels associated with various activities—and the results, per the article, indicated that, behind sex and exercise, the next most happiness-inducing activity was attending the theatre.

This landed with a big thud inside my head, as it sits so squarely next to a lot of the work we’re trying to do to understand the impacts, effects and benefits of the arts beyond the economic, so I did a little research and discovered that the project is called the Mappiness Project and it is the graduate work of an LSE researcher named George MacKerron.  And I emailed him, he emailed back, and we chatted briefly.

So here’s the shocker—the Chatelaine article, and the Marie Claire article it’s based on, left out potentially the most amazing part of MacKerron’s (very preliminary) results so far.  Of the top six most happiness-inducing activities, again after sex and exercise, the other four are all arts-related.  They are, in descending order:

1)      Intimacy/making love
2)      Sports/running/exercise
3)      Theatre/dance/concert
4)      Singing/performing
5)      Exhibition/museum/library
6)      Hobbies/arts/crafts