Lisa A. Kramer

Author, Speaker, Theater Artist, Creativity Facilitator

The Truth About the Arts: Art is Activism

The other day I got an e-mail from a student in one of my upcoming Introduction to Theatre classes questioning my choice of text because, in his opinion, the first two chapters spoke heavily about theatre for political activism, and he did not want to take a class that focused on Political Theatre.

[caption id="attachment_36" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Maybe I should make my class read Cloud 9, which is about sexual politics and blow his mind. Maybe I should make my class read Cloud 9, which is about sexual politics and blow his mind.[/caption]

In typical fashion, his comments first through me into a funk of self-doubt. Did I make a mistake when selecting this book (which is a new text for me because I was going to go insane if I stuck with the same old same old)? Was I laying my passion for the power of theatre to make a difference in this world on too thick for students who were simply trying to fulfill an arts requirement by taking what they think would be a blow-off course? I admit, by spin into the self-doubt spiral was aided and abetted by the fact that this gentleman is a 72-year-old vet. While I enjoy having the military guys in my classes, they intimidate me until I get to know them, partly because we so often see the world from the opposite ends of the spectrum.

At first I was unsure how to respond, but then I wrote the following:
My approach to teaching Introduction to Theatre is to show the role theatre plays throughout society. Sometimes that role has been about Political Activism.  Theatre is a form of popular entertainment, of education, of communication, of expression and of historical significance. You cannot just look at theatre as one form of entertainment, and I believe it is important for students to understand the different types of theatre out there. Yes, the first chapters deal heavily with political activism, because that has been an important form of theatre throughout history. We will also be looking at theatre in other cultures, theatre historically, what it means to work in and create a production, as well as popular forms of theatre.  I, personally, am very passionate about theatre as a tool that challenges and questions society. This doesn’t mean I teach a political theatre class but that theatre is not completely removed from politics, it never has been.
His response was that he would "try to have an open mind."

This discussion led me to think about the bigger picture of the arts in the world. We all know that the first thing to be cut is arts programming. There are constant debates and discussions about the value of the arts, and whether or not the arts are a waste of time. Whenever there is a violent change of government, one of the first groups to be destroyed will be artists, and one of the first things placed under restrictions is the arts.

Why is that? Because the art do exactly what my student fears, they ask us to question, challenge, and confront society. This student, I believe, does not want his life or ideals to be challenged. He wants to look at theatre as only a form of entertainment and nothing more. He wants the arts to just be expressions of beauty and nothing more.

But anyone who participates in the arts of any form will recognize that the arts are much more than that. The arts express, challenge, question, signify, explain, demand, disturb, ruffle, amaze, astonish . . . Since "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" even a piece of art created simply to be beautiful can promote discussion, questioning, and analysis of how one defines beauty.

I believe that the arts face constant attack by people who fear things they cannot control, and the reality is that art is uncontrollable.

But it's also valuable.

You can find arguments debating the importance and value of arts, stating that the only subject of true value to society is the sciences because they bring more understanding about the world. Then why, I ask, do so many famous scientists find escape in their own participation in the arts?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="447"] Albert Einstein playing the violin. Source, Wikipedia.[/caption]

The arts free minds to think in different directions. The arts focus us in new ways and open us up to possibilities. The arts teach us discipline, collaboration, problem solving, and communication among so many other things.

Now why would we want anyone to learn all that?

Because here's the truth about arts that many in power fear--anyone who participates in the arts is, in some ways, an activist. I'm not saying every artist is political or demanding social change. But art teaches us to create a new understanding about the world around us, just as science does. Art asks us to question what we see, hear, taste and smell. Art encourages us to look for and express universal truths--the truths that reveal the connections between us all, more than the differences.

That, I believe, is what some people fear. For the truth is this, art can make us better humans, if we let it.

But not if we hide behind closed minds.

Do you believe in the value of the arts? Do you think artists are activists? Please discuss.