What makes a citizen? How do the complex, elusive, and multifarious definitions of what it means to be an American exert their presence in art? And as the veil between artistic expression and political expression grows thin, how can contemporary artists shape and imagine new ways of being American? In this free-form, one-night-only conversation, four artists meet for the first time on stage to share their work and engage in a discussion about the intersection of art and American identity.
This interdisciplinary evening of performance and discussion brings together performance artist NIC Kay, author Lisa Ko, photographer Philip Montgomery, and stage and film director Yara Travieso, joined by Alejandro Rodriguez, artistic director of ASTEP’s Artist as Citizen Conference.
How can art transform a landscape? And who have access to such transformation? The River Assembly Project not only confirms that art has the power to transform, but also declares that each and all should have access to art’s potentials.
Turning an industrial barge into The Floating Museum, Chicago’s local artists, with various arts and cultural organizations, came together to “create temporary, site-responsive museum spaces to activate sites of cultural potential throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.”
According to the creators of the project, first it’s important to talk “with community leaders, organizations, and artists who are deeply invested in their neighborhood.” Then they “nurture new connections between communities, institutions, and the people these spaces serve.” The results of this process are “installations are platforms for engaging communities and celebrating the art and culture being produced by our neighborhoods.” In doing so, The River Assembly Project “bring[s] together the work of … dispersed locations in a traveling museum that celebrates the energy” of Chicago.
The Floating Museum showcases visual arts, media, and performances by more than 30 local and national artists, including:
The Society for Ethnomusicology is currently collecting news items to include in its online repository: applied project news, educational outreach program news, organizational endeavors, and research projects. We are grateful to and inspired by the Society for Ethnomusicology and their thoughtful attention to connections between music and social justice.
The Society states:
The Society for Ethnomusicology’s Music and Social Justice Resources Project is a repository of material on how people worldwide are currently using music to address issues of social conflict, exclusion/inclusion, and justice. We welcome notices on public events (e.g., rallies, performances, conferences) and other general news; proposals/reports on projects involving community engagement, activism, or advocacy; syllabi, lesson plans, and other educational material; information on activist organizations; and research articles.
By way of example, meet Musicians Without Borders. Founded officially in 2000, this world-wide organization has been working with local musicians and community organizations to build sustainable community music programs. Why music? The organization states:
Where war has raged, people need everything to return to life: food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine. But more than anything, people need hope. To reconcile, people need empathy. To heal, people need connection and community.
Music creates empathy, builds connection and gives hope.
Paula Vogel’s Indecent is a play about our past, present, and future; it is a play about the many ways society judges its people; it is a play about GLBT rights; it is a play about the good and bad of humanity; but it is also a love story—a love for theater and the transformative powers the theater holds for audiences and players alike.
Structured as a play within a play, Indecent retells the history of Sholem Asch’s 1907 Yiddish drama, God of Vengeance. After touring the world to critical acclaim, and at its Broadway debut at the Apollo Theater on 42nd Street, Asch’s work was shut down in 1923 for obscenity; all the actors were arrested given the drama’s exploration of same-sex love. Asch’s work is pinned against the backdrop of anti-Semitism—additionally, general anti-immigration sentiments—in the United States. So largely, Vogel’s Indecent illustrates the ways in which the oppressed maintain their identities and dignity when pushed to the margins.
Interestingly, Asch’s play is as relevant today as it was, then, when it toured the world. And so Vogel’s prism-view of God of Vengeance refracts the very essence of today with incredible clarity and precision. Vogel states:
I didn’t anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and, yes, anti-Semitism. We are in the midst of the strongest white nationalism since the 1920s when American borders were closed to immigrants. In this moment of time we must say that we are all Muslim. We must reclaim the importance of our arts and culture. We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe.
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, Voices, funded 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 Gallery, Bronx Museum, Winthrop University, Art 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.
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.
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 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.
What happens to us when we actively engage as art-makers or art-takers? Who do we become?
Given the complexities of today’s political, social, and emotional landscapes, engaging with/through the arts is as important now more than ever. Why? “With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s easy to question the value of telling stories or making sculptures.” While some may be tempted to question the arts at times like these, we disagree. And so does Miguel Syjuco.
“Silence, it is said, implies complicity. But that’s only half the story. Silence also confirms oppression, because the ability to speak out is too often a luxury of the privileged.
The aggressive populism we see today seems to be a testament to people refusing to be silent – and rightly so. Our societies have largely failed to provide equally for all, and technology now gives us new avenues through which to be heard, and with which to rebel against repressive ideas and structures. New leaders have latched onto that and now seek to speak for us, even though many of them are rallying us crudely around fear and mistrust.”
Art making and art taking help us raise our voices to the level of consciousness. The arts confirm that we do not need to remain silent and complicit.
Pablo Picasso knew this all too well. That’s why he painted “Guernica.”
“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 ofmaking 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?
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.
Violent hate crimes have surged around the world, including the U.S., where disgusting racist, homophobic, and misogynist language has become normalized in political speeches and on social media, where violence has become routine, and where free speech and other democratic freedoms are under threat.
These realities highlight the fact that what sustains democracies is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but also social norms and practices, individual and communal ethics, empathy, excellent public education systems, and peaceful protest, including “calling out” racism and other social injustices “loudly and by name.”
As the authors of the 27 chapters in Artistic Citizenship document, artists of all kinds around the world are putting their art-making to work for social “goods” by “calling out” and protesting anti-democratic and anti-human behaviors.
(Note: By “artists” we mean amateurs and professionals in all the arts, arts educators, and students involved in art-making for active social justice).
One example of a full-time arts activist is Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre
Guante is a hip-hop artist, a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, an educator, a writer, and a contributor to Artistic Citizenship. He has “performed for justice” widely in the U.S. and abroad—from the United Nations, to the Soundset Hip-Hop Festival, to countless colleges, universities, clubs, theaters, and rallies across the U.S. His performances have been featured on BBC Radio 6-Music, MSNBC, Upworthy, Everyday Feminism, and Button Poetry. And he facilitates community workshops that use the arts as jumping-off points for deeper conversations about identity, power, empathy, and agency.
Here are two examples of Guante’s performances that exemplify his commitment to challenging dominant narratives related to race and racism, and deconstructing traditional notions of masculinity:
Do arts educators have a civic responsibility to do more than talk-talk-talk about artistic “response-ability” and social justice in their journal articles and at conferences? Writing and face-to-face discussions are important, of course, which is why we applaud a 2017 initiative at Michigan State University titled “Musicking Equity: Enacting Social Justice Through Music Education.”
Hopefully, such conferences will actually lead to “enacting” social justice in the sense of actual participation in public contention, acting for social justice, doing it, performing it, and creating “ethical spectacles” of/for social justice.
Prince died on April 21st. Like Bowie, Prince defied all musical norms, social labels, gender codes, and sexual stereotypes. As Nathan Smith says in Out: “For many members of the queer community, Prince’s sheer persistent resistance to being restricted by language was an exciting and provocative feat and one through which they could channel their own frustrations and identity struggles.”
George Michael died on Christmas Day at the age of 53. In 1998, Michael came out as being gay and advocated strongly for AIDS prevention and gay rights. At a time when being gay was considered a “sin,” Michael’s openness served as a hopeful beacon to LGBT people who, themselves, were struggling to be free and proud of their identities. How should we remember George Michael? Lee Williscroft-Ferris argues that
George Michael represented a walking middle-finger-up in the faces of those right wing mouthpieces that would desexualize gay men, sanitizing our existence and barely concealing their disdain and, frequently, their outright disgust at the mere thought of gay men interacting sexually with one another.
One Takeaway Message
Music isn’t set off from the world, as too many musicians, music educators, and audience members would have us believe. Instead, as the eminent UC-Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues: “Music is in the world, doing worldly work.”
People do a serious disservice to activist artists of all kinds—or what we call artivists—when they attempt to sanitize or depoliticize musicians’ lives and legacies. Instead, let’s celebrate all three men as musical-social icons: extraordinary people who made major differences in the lives of LGBT individuals and communities worldwide.