The Arts and Creating Social Change

As an arts advocate and theatre person, I frequently find myself in conversations where I am asked to explain why the arts are important to fund, to attend, to practice, etc. Saturday at the Arts and the Economic Crisis symposium hosted by Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, I had one of those “aha” moments that will forever change the way I answer that question.

The final discussion panel of the evening was moderated by the brilliant Homi K. Bhabha and included renowned theatre, opera and festival coordinator Peter Sellars, Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and poetry editor for The New Yorker and Princeton professor Paul Muldoon (Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison was unfortunately unable to attend, though her book Burn This Book was read from and her work discussed). What really struck me was that all four men riffed on the idea that the arts are about empathy. It is through theatre, cinema, prose, music, dance and art that we are given a window into the lives of others in any real way. It is only when people are placed in a situation in which, as Paul Muldoon explained, they see what is like to be in another person’s skin and think nothing of themselves, that great art is made—a necessity for civil society.

Philip Seymour Hoffman discredited the idea that the arts (particularly theatre) are escapist. He explained that when he watches a show he must empathize with characters in devastating situations—so much so that he is relieved when the show ends (a feeling I completely understand. I cannot count how many times I have had to sit in my seat for a good 5-10 minutes after a play ended to compose myself.) But this experience is a necessary one and a fulfilling one. These empathetic experiences are the only ways for people to begin to try to understand what is like to live someone else’s life. As all four men agreed, watching tv and reading the news is important, but does not promote understanding between cultures, ethnicities, generations, etc. It only deepens the “us’/‘them’ divide. Philip Seymour Hoffman said it best: “If we’re in a world where the media is just reminding us why to be angry, then we never get to the weeping.”

Part of me has long felt jealous of my parents’ generation—of living in a time of such strong political and social activism. My co-worker and I were discussing voter turn out among people my age and were positing theories as to why it is so low. Even with the recent groundbreaking presidential election, one that received staggering support from young people, the number of young voters was not what it could have been. I think though, that it is not because my generation is apathetic or lazy or self-involved. From what I have seen of my peers it is that many of them choose instead to get in the trenches and enact change themselves (I am not suggesting this should come in place of voting, but there is certainly something to be said for being the change you wish to see in the world.) After college many of my friends chose to do things like apply for Teach for America, work with autistic children, and create arts programs for children with exactly that intention in mind. Perhaps more of us should turn to the arts, like many of our parents did, as a voice for these changes we wish to see.

At the symposium, one panelist concluded that more members of my generation were pursuing careers they felt passionately about because of the downturn in the economy. If you aren’t going to be able to get that job in corporate finance anyway, you may as well do what you love, right? I came out of this conference with a new sense of hope and a reinvigorated passion for the arts. With all the struggle that is going on at this moment, perhaps we should all take a page from Peter Sellars: “It’s a great time to be an artist right now—there’s a lot of subject matter.”

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