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Why We Need the Arts Now More than Ever

This week, the Vice President-elect of the United States went to a theater in New York to see the hit Broadway show Hamilton. After the show ended, actor Brandon Victor Dixon had a heartfelt plea for the future VP:

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

Dixon’s stirring words drew a round of applause from the audience, and reminded us that even those who feel completely helpless right now have a voice. We have the arts. Throughout history, writers, painters, actors, and other artists have used the arts to express things that are too complicated or controversial for the journalistic or political theaters.

dante-painting
A depiction of Dante and his Inferno and Paradiso by 15th century painter Domenico di Michelino.

Art and History

The pen is mightier than the sword. Intelligent, thoughtful art can shake even the strongest regimes. Dante Alighieri lived over a century before the Protestant Reformation, but his epic poem Inferno was the first big hit against the Catholic Church. He condemned the church and many of its officials and his sentiments were later echoed by more traditional reformationists.

Shakespeare‘s tragedies aren’t just sad stories – they’re warnings about the dangers of inaction (Hamlet), greed (Macbeth and King Lear), and revenge (Titus Andronicus). Even the English language’s oldest written text, Beowulf, is a lesson about the deeds of men outlasting the men themselves.

Just after World War I, a movement now known as the Harlem Renaissance grew in New York’s Harlem borough. Disenfranchised African-Americans used music, poetry, and fiction to share their struggles. Works like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are incredible novels with commentary on race, gender, and class that are still relevant today. One of the most important (and controversial) books taught in elementary schools around the country is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Finn, author Mark Twain explores themes of racism, xenophobia, and elitism.

kirk-uhura-kiss-star-trek
This was a huge deal in 1968.

Modern Allegory

These kinds of sentiments aren’t limited to the classics. Look at Star Trek. It featured the first interracial kiss on television and people lost their minds. Star Trek served as important allegory, and was groundbreaking for its methods in sharing creator Gene Roddenberry’s ideals on regular TV. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is a pretty critical view of British totalitarianism and surveillance in the name of public safety. Even Star Wars, a series known for being a swashbuckler in space, has the wise Yoda teaching a young Anakin that “fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Many Americans are afraid of the current political atmosphere. They’re afraid of having their rights taken away after fighting for them tooth and nail. Some are getting apocalyptic in their predictions. Instead of looking to the future, we need to look to our past and the art of the ages.

Those afraid of totalitarian regimes or apocalyptic doomsday scenarios should look to George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Margaret Atwood. Instead of stockpiling supplies, stockpile good literature. Look at the way authors of the past have tackled oppressive or single-minded governments. Look at the characters in those works and think about what you would do. Educate yourself, even if its in theoretical ideas, in the fiction that reveals our deepest truths.

Fandom is for Everyone

Anyone who belongs to a fandom can understand the power of art. Whether you’re into Star WarsThe Vampire Diaries, or Adventure Time, fandom unites you with everyone else who loves that thing. Some part of the show/movie/book/comic inspired feeling inside someone else, and that shared understanding of an emotion, or of an idea, can be stronger than even bonds related to nationality or political leanings. Fandom is for everyone, and it’s incredible when you find your own “fanmily”.

Those who are blessed and cursed with a creative mind need to use it. Make art, any art. Make art about your fears, your hopes, your dreams. Just make art because it is one of the few things that survives the test of time. A century from now, what art will students study about our time? What do we want the people of the future to think we had to say?

None of this is easy. Art never is. Even if you’re creating something to provide an escape for those who are afraid of the real world, do it. We need our best and brightest creative minds to band together to preach love, and compassion, and understanding. Don’t take up arms. Instead, raise your pens and let the world know that hate is not an American ideal. Hate based on fear of the “other” is especially not.

Even if those folks claiming this is the end are right, we need not go quietly into that good night. Share the things you’ve learned from Captain Kirk and Yoda. We are amazing because we are different. It’s time to celebrate that instead of fear it.


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