What Is Possible?

A Wondering About Art, Activism, and Sustainability

I have always felt very uncomfortable calling myself an art activist. Or even an activist at all. 

It's a term that gets thrown around quite a bit in my line of work- the socially engaged arts- and I am certainly not judging those who have claimed it and chosen to label themselves as some sort of art-activist. It just doesn't sit well with me, like a glove that I have tried over and over to try and make fit but always feel just slightly off. 

Sure, at several points in my life I have planned meetings for campaigns, spent late nights drawing up signs and A-boards by hand and graffiti, marched, rallied and demonstrated for causes I felt were important and urgent. But recently, I find myself spending increasingly more time, energy and resources developing myself as an artist. Developing my craft, training in technique, investigating creative processes, attending performances and artistic events, teaching workshops, and connecting with other artists and art educators. To frame all this under the umbrella of activism seems inaccurate, disingenuous, and frankly, maybe even insulting to folks who really do devote their whole lives to community organizing and political activism. 

To be clear, I am not claiming that art isn't political. In my opinion, ALL art is political, in the same way that everything in life is political- every choice we make is charged with politics and even the choice to ignore the politics of our choices ends up reinforcing certain dominant narratives and structures of power. And yes, I see my own art-making as very political. Even as I write this blog post I am in the midst of a choreography residency with Witswatersrand University's Drama For Life program, in which I am setting a new dance theater work on an all-female cast of students that exposes and challenges different forms of patriarchy they have experienced in their lives. So there. 

I am also not claiming that art and activism are on opposite ends of a spectrum, mutually exclusive and unable to overlap in some way. A core belief I hold very dear is that of the artist's responsibility to reflect back the times, to invite, provoke, and challenge people to confront the dissonant parts of themselves and imagine what else is possible. To exercise this is to inherently politicize our bodies, beliefs and practices, and to do it well is to transform people in a profound and irreversible way. 

But lately, I have felt rather consumed by the language and methods surrounding my field. I see peers, work colleagues, and mentors claiming this term, art activist (or dance activist or theater activist), and it makes me wonder... why? Why isn't being an artist enough? Is that a reflection of how limited our understanding of the role of the artist really is in society? Is making performance work about social issues enough to call oneself an activist? What is the measurable impact of art? What can art do that organizing and campaigning and policy work cannot? What contribution can the artist make to on-going social movements that the activist, organizer, politician cannot? What is the relationship between art and activism?

Justice Edwin Cameron (of the South African Constitutional Court) once said that the biggest issue facing people living with HIV in South Africa was not access to treatment, but stigma. Stigma is held deep in our subconscious, informed by long-standing cultural beliefs and everyday happenings that reinforce them. Stigma cannot be fought by science research or expansion of treatment centers or money. Art can fight stigma. Art has the ability to transform people at their most core level. Art allows people to express and examine the most personal parts of themselves, to educate and connect with others, to build understanding and compassion in a way that nothing else can. 

THIS is the power of the arts and the role of the artist. To work in a deeply embodied way, to access that side of us that is usually guarded by intellect, logic and socialization, to penetrate through those barriers and make us feel. Real change happens on the ground, with political demonstrations and policy changes, and it also happens here- in our hearts and bodies. In fact, there cannot be one without the other. Artists need movements to guide and ground our work, as much as movements need artists to create experiences of beauty and discomfort, to help people understand what needs changing and imagine what is possible. This is why I like Martha Gonzalez's term "artivista", it embodies that symbiotic relationship so simply and eloquently. 

Still, I am left wth this pending question of how? How can we develop ourselves as stronger, more effective and proficient artists in a society that underfunds and undervalues the role of art and the artist? I do firmly believe that the key to creating more powerful and moving artistic work is in the real development of rigorous craft, in the commitment to truly being an artist, perhaps even to choose to be an artist over an activist, educator or administrator. But of course, most of us end up having to wear these multiple hats, and not to mention do other totally unrelated jobs, "just to get by", as Talib Kweli put it.

The mainstream and commercial artists get paid better, but since they are only interested in training and performing, they end up reinforcing all kinds of oppressive narratives and power structures through their artistic work. Obviously not all of them (as problematic as Beyoncé's and Kendrick Lamar's most recent projects have been, they have certainly been highly politically charged and made great impact on folks), but most of them. The socially engaged artists, committed to subverting all of that, end up spending an enormous amount of time not training enough (talking, meeting, educating, fundraising) and.... well, end up not being as good. Or as entertaining, strong or moving.

How many times have I gone into a theater, excited and filled with anticipation to see an all-female or all-people-of-color or all-queer production giving voice to some kind of untold and undermined story, only to leave feeling dejected, disappointed, and utterly underwhelmed? Too many times, that's how many. It's infuriating, because that's how that kind of work gets a bad rap, and it's sad because of course those stories need to be told and artists need to be given a chance to grow and mature, but how can that happen if our field is underfunded and undervalued?

In his 2002 documentary, "Pleasure & Pain", Ben Harper was asked if he considered himself an activist. His answer was a very clear and strong "no", claiming that being an activist was a full-time job, and if he did that he would have no time for his music. Maybe, should socially-engaged artists devote more of their time and resources to their actual art? To training, becoming stronger and more proficient performers, getting their work funded and creating a sustainable work model for them to continue making art? Maybe this is how we, as artists, will actually be most effective and impactful in our contribution to the social movements of our time, the beautiful struggle- by really and truly being full-time artists? And if so, what models will allow us to be full-time artists? Is that even possible in this global economy? In short, what is possible?