Voices

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, domestic violence includes any

willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other.

Domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. It is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior that is only a fraction of a systematic pattern of dominance and control. Domestic violence can result in physical injury, psychological trauma, and in severe cases, even death. The devastating physical, emotional, and psychological consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and last a lifetime.

In response to domestic violence, one letter to the editor of The New York Times asks: “Do we endorse this cruelty in silence? Or do we stand together to protect the most vulnerable among us?”

Artist Cat Del Buono is standing up and outwardly doing something about this. In one such project, Voicesfunded by a grant from Baang + Burne Contemporary, Del Buono spent two years

interviewing domestic violence survivors at shelters in Miami, Hartford, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. After filming only their mouths to keep the women anonymous, Del Buono created an installation of 20 small monitors with the lips of the survivors speaking of their personal experience. When viewers walk into the exhibit, the multiple voices create a symphony of unrecognizable words. Only when you approach an individual monitor do you hear their personal and traumatic stories and how they have gotten out of their situations. The necessity of this movement on the part of viewers acts as a metaphor: only when one gets close do they learn of the individual’s traumatic experiences. As a society, we must not allow the epidemic of domestic violence and those who are affected by it to remain an invisible, inaudible crowd of statistics.

Here is a sample of one of the video installations

Voices has travelled across the United States, and was recently exhibited at Blue Sky GalleryBronx MuseumWinthrop UniversityArt Palm Beach, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami where it was accompanied by a panel discussion open to the public. Local NPR radio host Bonnie Berman moderated the panel consisting of domestic abuse survivor, a local advocate, teen violence advocate, the museum’s director of international programs, and Del Buono.

Del Buono received a BA from Boston College, an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and attended the graduate film program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Trained as a photographer and filmmaker, Del Buono creates video installations and public happenings. She incorporates performance, interactive video, and humor as ways to engage and impact her viewers.

 

For Freedoms

The heart of Artistic Citizenship asks artists of all kinds, whether amateur or professional and across all arts domains, to ask critically important questions, such as:

What responsibilities do artists have to engage in art work for social transformation?

One organization—or, “super PAC” as they call themselves—aptly named “For Freedoms,” not only interrogates this question, but also activates this question for those whom engage with their artistry. As Celia McGee writes:

Founded by Hank Willis Thomas, a photographer and conceptual artist, and Eric Gottesman, a video artist and activist, the super PAC is named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” wartime address in 1941 — a call to safeguard the freedoms of speech and worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.

Contributing artists and photographers include Carrie Mae WeemsRashid JohnsonXaviera SimmonsAlec Soth, Bayeté Ross Smith, Fred Tomaselli and Marilyn Minter. Their works will be used for billboards, building signs, subway advertising, Internet memes, social media and select print advertising, potentially even yard signs, and ultimately an art show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea.

For Freedoms describes their mission as follows:

As the first artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms uses art to inspire deeper political engagement for citizens who want to have a greater impact on the American political landscape.

WE BELIEVE

We believe that artists, and art, play an important role in galvanizing our society to do better. We are frustrated with a system in which money, divisiveness, and a general lack of truth-telling have stifled complex conversation. We created the first artist-run super Pac because we believe it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.

What can we learn about the role of art in politics from For Freedoms? We leave this up to you to decide. For now, we urge you to think-through today through the lens of the actions and activism of For Freedoms.

A Jim Goldberg photograph from the Postcards From America series. Jackie Smith, protesting gentrification in Memphis, at the site of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., now the National Civil Rights Museum.

Framing “Artistic Citizenship”

“Artistic citizenship” is a concept with which we hope to encapsulate our belief that artistry involves civic-social-humanistic-emancipatory responsibilities, obligations to engage in art making that advances social “goods.” The terms artist, artistry, and artistic as we use them are not elitist. By “artists” we mean to include people of all ages (from youth to adults) and levels of technical accomplishment (from amateur to professional practitioners) who make and partake of art(s) of all kinds, in contexts ranging from informal to formal, with the primary intent of making positive differences in people’s lives. Whereas artistic proficiency entails myriad skills and understandings, artistic citizenship implicates additional commitments to act in ways that move people—both emotionally and in the sense of mobilizing them as agents of positive change. Artistic citizens are committed to engaging in artistic actions in ways that can bring people together, enhance communal wellbeing, and contribute substantially to human thriving.

In framing this book’s project we invited contributors across art disciplines to share their research, their practical projects and strategies, their experiences, and their insights as artistic citizens. We deliberately left open the meaning of “artistic citizenship,” however, in order to allow a range of interpretations and perspectives to emerge. The result is, we think, an imaginative and inspiring collection of essays, richly suggestive in their range and scope. They address and explore quite a number of interlocking and provocative questions, including these:

  • What does “citizenship” mean and how might these meanings relate to our understandings of the privileges and obligations that attend artistic practices?
  • How might “artistic citizenship” differ from (or resemble) citizenship in general?
  • Is there a polity called art to which persons belong, owe allegiance, and derive benefits? If there is such a polity, what practices does being an artistic citizen require?
  • In what ways and to what extent do art-makers and art-takers have responsibilities (or obligations) to deploy the potentials of the arts to advance social justice, human rights, and the like?
  • What personal, social, cultural, educational, political, therapeutic, economic, and health-giving “goods” can artistic engagements (amateur or professional) facilitate?
  • What ethical issues and responsibilities attend the concept of art making as force for advancing positive social and political change?
  • How might artistic citizens engage the “general public” in artistic projects designed to serve diverse public, social, cultural, political interests?
  • How can ethically-oriented artistry contribute to the mitigation of racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and ethnocentricism, and other forms of social injustice?
  • What abilities and dispositions of body-mind and heart do amateur and professional artists require if they are to engage in, develop, and expand the possibilities and potentials of artistic citizenship?
  • What historical precedents can inform and refine our understandings of the “why, what, how, who, where, and when” of artistic citizenship?
  • What are the most effective strategies and tactics that artist-activists (or “artivists”[i]) to confront problems like racial violence, poverty, disease, discrimination, and the like?
  • What are the specific or distinctive potentials of particular artistic endeavors for fulfilling the commitments and responsibilities of artistic citizenship?
  • How can school and community arts education programs develop young people’s habits of heart and mind in and through socially responsible art making?

Additional questions and issues emerge from the chapters in the book, questions too numerous to list here. But the questions, discussions, and actions to which the book’s essays lead will be the ultimate measure of this project’s significance. We leave it to our readers, then, to carry these conversations forward—to follow the leads offered by contributors to this volume. Although we cannot know precisely the form those ideas may eventually assume, it is our hope that they will involve continuous critical dialogue across artistic disciplines about the ethical potentials of artistry, the nature of artistic responsibility, and the remarkable capacities of art to improve our neighborhoods, our societies, and our world.

[i] The concept of “artivism” and therefore “artivist” can be found in Rodney Diverlus’ chapter (in this volume) and also Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre (2007). Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color, in Anna Everett (Ed.) Learning Race and Ethnicity, (pp. 81-108), MIT Press.

Hamilton and Artistic Citizenship

Sometime during the day of Friday, November 19, 2016, the cast and crew of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s prize-winning Broadway musical, were informed that U.S. Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence and his family would be in the audience that night. And so it was that the stage was set for “a play within a play.” As Pence entered the Richard Rogers Theatre with hundreds of others, he was greeted with a mix of boos and applause.

As the musical progressed, and specific lines and songs were performed, it was as if Miranda had written them explicitly for this post-election, political-moment-in-time. Not surprisingly, then, after King George III (played by Rory O’Malley) sang “When your people say they hate you / Don’t come crawling back to me,” the cheering and shouting was so intense that he had to ask for quiet so the play could resume.

Instead of the usual curtain call, and as Pence began exiting the theater, lead-actor, Brandon Victor Dixon—who plays third Vice-President Aaron Burr—implored Pence and his family to remain a little longer because Dixon had more to say. As Pence waited, Dixon read a statement written by Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and producer Jeffrey Seller:

We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents . . . We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.

Newspapers, online media, and critics have dubbed this “the Hamilton episode” because this performance-and-post-performance event not only marked a significant moment in American political discourse, it went beyond “another day in the life” of American musical theater: the Hamilton episode “troubled”—literally and figuratively—many ways in which art-making, politics, race, gender, history, and other aspects of life are always inseparable, and the ways in which art-making and “art-taking” can perform peaceful and effective social protest.

As Mark Harris states in Vulture:

The Hamilton episode touched on LGBTQ issues, which were shamefully under-discussed during the [recent U.S. election] campaign and remain so now. It touched on immigration; on race; on the impact and value of protest speech; on the president-elect’s temperament; on his demands for opponents to capitulate; on his disdain for First Amendment freedoms (his quartet of Hamilton tweets was consistent with his post-election attacks on public protestors and on the New York Times); and on the worries of several large populations that the Trump administration will demonize them and make them less safe.

This episode also raises questions about the old 19th-century notion of “art for art’s sake” and the actuality of “art for people’s sake”—i.e., art making for the positive transformation of one’s own and others’ personhood and social communities. When a person creates a piece of music, or writes a poem, s/he is not doing it for the benefit of another piece of music, or another poem—i.e., art for art’s sake—but for the benefit of people.

Restated as a question: What are the roles and responsibilities of art-makers and art-takers? Are we only producers and consumers, or something else? Is the Hamilton episode an act of socially positive, participatory art-making, where actors and spect-actors (see Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed) are not part of a normal music theater experience, but are equal participants in a multidimensional political and educational journey of artistic-social responsibility and ethical praxis? If so, then they are involved in a socially transformative, “ethical spectacle.”

Thus, audiences must always be prepared for the possibility that a musical theater production—or any artistic event, amateur or professional—can/will be more than entertainment, or an evening’s distraction. Any artistic event may also be an “episode”—an act of—of “art-ivism,” or what we call Artistic Citizenship: “Anybody who walks through the doors of a theater should be prepared to have preconceptions challenged, beliefs questioned, certitudes shaken, ideas adjusted, worldviews broadened, and perspectives shifted.”

People like President-Elect Donald Trump—who demanded an apology from the cast of Hamilton (so much for “free speech” in Trump’s America)—and those who consider social-participatory and applied art-making, or artivism, a threat to their comfortable beliefs, probably do not understand the potency of the arts. The arts can unsettle us, move us to reconsider our beliefs and motivations, and question our worlds. The arts are not “safe places” and likely should not be, especially now.

The real work of a “work of art” is not simply to show, but to tell. It’s essential that we (amateurs and professionals) put our artistic endeavors to work for the safety and well-being of people who are under attack. It’s essential that we engage actively in Artistic Citizenship.

Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner

When thinking of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s typical to reflect on the world’s great writers and past winners: Alice Munro, Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Octavio Paz, to name only a few. This year, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has won because, as the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said, Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Granting this award to Bob Dylan signifies important things. First, songs and their lyrics are as much poetic devices as “pure” poetry. This thinking dates back to ancient Greek poets, who recited their poetry to music. In fact, and because of this, ancient Greek poetry is not so much thought of as collections of “poems,” but as “songs.” In Greek times, the culture of poetry was the culture of song. Bob Dylan is being recognized for carrying forward this ancient tradition.

Also, and while the Academy recognizes Dylan’s contribution to the fields of folk, rock, pop music, and popular culture, this Nobel Prize signifies something important for artistic citizenship. Dylan’s songwriting oftentimes took an activist stance. Indeed, Dylan felt that songs could and would change the world. As David Yaffe notes, once Dylan got involved with CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), “he began writing songs about Emmett Till, Hattie Carroll, and James Meredith.” He created “words that would be belted out at the March on Washington by Peter, Paul, and Mary ‘How many years can some people exist until they’re allowed to be free.’” And while Dylan’s musical “art-ivism” ebbed and flowed throughout his career, his songs remain and continue to powerfully engage and transform the world.

Equally important, the Academy’s move shows that distinctions between so-called “high art” and “low art” are arbitrary categories that are no longer useful. Indeed, Dylan’s poetic songs engage in/with the world and do worldly work. “The times they are a changing,” sang Dylan. Yes, they have. Congratulations to Bob Dylan, poet of America for the world!