As a new President stood atop the Capitol steps last Friday, it was clear that these are not the times to look up for inspiration.
I’m an artist — I don’t look up. I look around, and I question everything.
As citizens, can we imagine a culture based on mutual recognition, mutual respect, and dignity? How do we weaponize love?
I ask these questions in a particular context. I am a theater maker and educator; I occupy a dual perch of administrative direction and a privileged artistic visibility. So what should one do in these times if armed with the privilege to dream and 40 acres or so of cultural space to plow? I am a creative citizen. What to sow?
To begin, I must insist that the seeds of Trump-era artistic expression should be grounded in dreaming forward rather than reconciling our present cultural rifts. People tell me to resist ‘preaching to the choir’ in this moment, or wonder about the overall efficacy of cultural work that doesn’t invite participation by multiple sides of the ideological spectrum.
My problem with this assumption is the implication that art can heal, but only if our creative voices are willing to tune themselves to the frequency of a common ground. I prefer to take my cues from a history that teaches us that the icons of dissent weren’t marked with holidays in the time of their protest. Most often, the ‘right thing’ isn’t clear to us until a generation after the blood has dried.
But from my standpoint, one thing is clear. America has elected rotten behavior as its moral compass. The intellectual-in-chief can only manage policy at haiku-length, which he stutters at the world from a gold tower, 140 characters at a time. His ascendancy marks the defense of white supremacy and predatory patriarchy in a moment of radical demographic shift, and a corporate victory over science in a climactic age of climate change.
Respectfully, my art is not and never will be a bridge to this. It is a socket, inviting all who wish to be charged to plug in. It is a battery.
As always, artists are mandated with drafting the physical choreography of critique. If a shift from failed state to autocratic regime is imminent, then our brightest hope is in the creative souls who can harness and develop the language of the public imagination. We have a sincere task: speak a creative truth in a time when the truth is creatively abused in unprecedented ways by our country’s unpresidential head of state.
If the role of artists is to illuminate culture’s unseen possibilities, then arts institutions must investigate how best to activate those possibilities. For example, if we liquidated all the assets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — like, sold everything in the building in a high art garage sale — we’d probably be sitting on $500 billion. Could we imagine taking that twelve-figure windfall and investing it in the cultural landscape of this country? Could we imagine $500 billion allocated to ensuring inspiration for everyone in the country for the next generation? What would we lose if the Met disappeared and in its stead we created an ACLU for the arts — a privately held organization in service of American inspiration?
To be clear, I love the Met and its kindred institutions. My provocation emanates from the unfortunate truth that the arts are culturally positioned as distraction rather than catalyst, which is why no one ever expects us to lead. How do we expect cultural institutions to move into leadership if we’re not willing to center inspiration in our cultural discourse? It behooves us to think of arts institutions with greater intentionality, to consider them not as repositories of pre-fabricated culture, but as the living infrastructure necessary to mobilize the public imagination.
As a cultural community, we do not have the luxury of constructing hermetically sealed art spaces full of objects we love that don’t reach out to touch us back. I believe that art isn’t other, it is of us, and must be integrated into the cycle of social progress in a systematic way. There are examples of this in action already — for instance, YBCA has created a fellowship program bringing artists and non-artists together for a year in pursuit of a critical social inquiry.
Such ideas are part of a broader mission to generate culture that moves people, to turn our glass and steel architecture into a social incubator for creative change. Our adversaries have designed systems that effectively incarcerate and deport us. If central government actively propagates the politics of exclusion, can arts institutions endeavor to choreograph social justice? At my organization, we hold fast to a rigorous curatorial standard while literally wondering aloud a question — one that will hopefully be on everyone’s minds:
“Can we design freedom?”
Marc Bamuthi Joseph is the Director of Performing arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the founding Program Director of Youth Speaks, and a co-founder of Life is Living. His accomplishments and works are collected in brief here. In 2014, for KQED Arts, he picked his Top Five Hip-Hop Songs from 1993.