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21 Questions to ask yourself before you sit down to resist

Stages of Resistance

Brittany K. Allen headshot
This piece is part of a blog salon, 
curated by 
Caridad Svich, called 
"Stages of Resistance." The series 
welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with art-friends lately to the tune of, “why do we still do this?” and “how do we justify this work with all that’s going on outside?” Responses to this question have grown more articulate and dispassionate in the days since He-who-must-not-be-named was elected, when, for a brief while, every artist I know was angry and confused in a similar way. But a kind of acceptance follows grief, and with a little time the question’s reception has gone from sad rhetorical pondering (going over like a lead balloon in mixed company, never to be answered) -- to pragmatic defense (“because I don’t want to be a lawyer, and I don’t feel that teaching call; also, I’m unqualified for everything else”). For me and many others, the question has also morphed into a gauntlet: I feel that everything I make from henceforth should live up to The Question, should be worthy and wise and important, like The Question; never trivial, never old-school, always resisting. Some would argue an artist should always try to do this in even the safest of worlds, but these are strange and terrible times all over the planet. You feel it, too, if you’re reading this. So how do we do it, how do I? How do you negotiate The Big Q? How do you rise to the new gauntlet?

For starters: different strokes for different folks. In the past five months some artists I know have made 180 degree turns with their personal mission statements; friends have, since November, produced some overtly political allegory plays, or hyper-earnest calls to love one another plays, when such things hadn’t necessarily been their bag before. Some of us--me--are working on political satire for the first time. I’ve noticed peers writing with a wider eye on representation. Some have revised old work to reflect their angrier spirit. Some others are doubling down on those census ticks which make them underheard in the(ater) world, writing to their queerness or blackness or brownness or trans-ness, more often or exclusively; because it is now more important than ever to be loud and strange and truthful and angry and for-your-tribe. Still others are making the same kinds of things they’ve always made: lovely interior plays, absurdist romps, period pieces--but maybe they’re directing their art’s profits to worthy charities, fully acknowledging in this way some fundamental chasm between entertainment and political action. These all strike me as thoughtful responses to The Question, if not answers in and of themselves to The Gauntlet. And it isn’t really resolvable, should never probably be resolved, but two semi-distinct paths for moving forward have emerged for me in light of all my thoughtful peers and their thoughtful new ways of making in the world today: either I make plays to give people profound joy, which is to say, plays that imagine a world less lonely and safer than the one I’ve often found myself in; or: I use my art to disrupt, to challenge, to critique, to tear shit up. It seems to me that I can hug or I can hit with a play, but in order to meet our new challenge, I must never shake hands. Ideally in my head, one great rock show will do all of these things, but it’s rare, it’s the high we’re all chasing, that once in a blue moon piece of art that simultaneously shows you the earth as you know it to be true, but also puts you on the moon.

With all that’s going on outside, a lot of other people who aren’t artists are thinking in terms of “two paths,” also. In order to rise to their own version of The Gauntlet, some liberal pundits have been leaning on a rhetorical stance of ‘us vs. them’, which ironically complicates matters. Applying this stance to theater, I also find myself asking these days: should I make wise, worthy art that is serenely and beautifully for Us, or wise, worthy art that is probing and daring in order to reach “Them?” Which is more worthy, more wise? That duality brings up some follow-up questions (so many questions, oceans of questions!): when rising to The Gauntlet, do you write in, or do you write out, if you feel threatened? Do you write in or do you write out when you’re black and queer and trans but people are telling you it’s more important, in the long haul, to set aside some of your personal battles for the sake of some greater, intersectional war? And, if you’re able to think this way, which gesture is more honest, writing in or out? What is more worthy, more wise, than honesty? Is empathy the end goal? Is recognition? And so on, into masturbatory neurotic infinity. I ask myself so many questions these days-- or this same one, over and over again in different language--that I look at the document and it is blank, a lot of the time.

So instead of dithering and postulating, I try to look for actual templates in the art I consume, templates for what I’m talking about. I look for the art these days that does meet the new standard (the art that makes me feel safe and seen in this skin on this blighted Earth that is Us but also puts me on the moon, which can be Them...). I go to see a Broadway show, a thoughtful and beautifully acted portrait of life on earth, a play that seeks to engage with a Them that is often merely conceptualized onstage. It is unapologetically political and pointed, this play. It is not a comedy. I watch it and feel glad that it exists. I watch it and feel for the characters, but when I ask myself walking home if I want to put work in the world that does to others what this play did to me, if I believe such work can hit and hug and tear shit up, I realize I am still craving the moon from this play. This was a piece of resistance art that I resisted, because while it met my own criteria, I never once left my chair (metaphorically). Perhaps, I make mental note, there is still room for the trivial in the worthy. So I make a little amendment to my new manifesto, in a notebook.

A little while later, I go to a musical, one with beautiful music, but a book that’s hard to follow. I tap my foot to and fro and my heart leaves my chair. I cry several times. But when the end arrives, somehow too soon, I realize I’m unsatisfied, still left craving some connection. It was joyful but easy, this beautiful play, and as soon as I leave the theater I sink right back into the same body and mind; on the subway I read my e-mails and the world feels exactly the same. I couldn’t hum a song back to you now.  There is a smaller place in the world for this now, I think, the art that will hug you briefly but leave you ultimately intact. Another one shy of the gauntlet then, this beautiful thing that put me briefly on the moon, but did not save me or show me anything new about the Earth. I make another note in my notebook: This job is fucking hard.

Finally, I go to a museum, where I hang out with a painter’s oeuvre. The paintings are hilarious and tragic, familiar and prodding in the same fell swoop. They hug me and hit me. I stand in front of one for thirty minutes, something I have never done before. That, I leave, thinking, am still thinking, that is what can be done. That is what I could do. It may be funny. Or it may be bright and strange and sour. But it must draw you in and make you fall in love with it before it sinks teeth into your soul, and then, only then, will it make you (me) want to act or scream or speak or listen, vote or empathize or rejoice in this body. This “resistance art,” which was simultaneously so political and so personal, trivial and epic, moon and earth, us and them, made me faithful. I still couldn’t tell you how to make it, but I know that I left that room feeling more alive, and braver. And perhaps, I think now, it rose to all my gauntlets, it checked off every art box, because the artist made it with his hands. And presumably he painted it because he didn’t need so many words for things, or so many reasons why.

Final questions, moving forward: are you actually going to be a Doctor with no border, Brittany? Will you apply your disposable income to the ACLU, will you give up this calling to teach for America? Maybe you should, if you find yourself unable to stop asking. But if it’s the answer you’re chasing--the worthy practice or object, that makes you both pristinely yourself and pristinely the Other, one or the other of these two paths of present resistance--well, I say we simply dispense with asking ourselves why art is so important in a broken world. The only muddy conclusion I’ve been able to slouch towards is that I know art may move and rupture. But nowadays, to rupture as the regime has and will, we have to believe we are dealing with hearts and bones and blood, as they are, if we are to make art that says or resists anything. There is obvious skin in the game.

I tell myself to think efficiently, and with my art tours in mind: if you plan to break something, know that a person can be most easily broken when they are distracted by something else (laughter, spectacle, horror, etc.), as with my painter friend. But if you plan to heal, know that every cure has a side-effect. Expect wincing, and growing pains. Know, Brittany (playwright, human woman) that actual bodies, physical bodies are in jeopardy as you set about making work that you feel should move and meet gauntlets. So get dirty, touch harder, and deeper, and maybe talk just a little less.