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!