Fear and Theater Through History
Once again we, as artists, find ourselves in the position of being told the arts are not as important. That they’re fluff, or window dressing. Something to pass the time with, but not something that contributes to the functioning and development of the country. Once again we’re screaming into a void, not sure if we’re being heard or if the sound is even being carried at all. And we’re screaming not because we’re surprised, but because we aren’t. Once again, we’re fighting to save the arts.
In schools, the first programs to get canceled during budget cuts are music and arts classes. Not having to pay for music instruments or supplies helps cut corners, and they aren’t subjects that appear on standardized tests. So, students won’t be negatively impacted when it comes to learning and college applications, right? Well….No. And while the idea of cutting back on arts because they aren’t relevant or necessary isn’t a new concept to the artistic community, it is a new idea when looking at the problem historically.
The idea we find in American society, that the artistic and political sphere don’t mix, is a fairly recent concept, established during the McCarthy Era in the United States. Hundreds of artists were blacklisted and could no longer travel outside the country or have their art produced because their work raised concerns of their patriotism. And for the artists who weren’t blacklisted, the fear of speaking out often times lead to self-censoring as a means of self-preservation. It was a time when certain politicians were at war with the arts.
Okay, so arts funding is getting cut. Theater and the arts aren’t receiving the recognition they deserve. We know this. We have known this. We’ve frustrated about this over happy hour drinks countless times. BUT. And it’s a pretty big BUT because historically, the arts have interacted with and challenged politics since the origins of theater.
Really quick history lesson time. (I promise this will be painless).
The Greeks held the Dionysia Festival in the city of Athens. In this festival different cities brought plays to be performed as tribute, after a super awesome procession throughout the city on day one of the festival. The important thing to note here is all the plays were written, performed, and watched by men. (A power dynamic which still manifests to a certain degree today). Also at that time, the Greeks were just coming out of the Persian War. And who served in the Persian War? All of the men! Which means everyone who was artistically involved or watching was dealing with various degrees of mental trauma due to serving in combat. And the really cool thing about the Greek plays is you can see that in the text. One example is Euripides’s Herakles, in which Herakles’s madness can be interpreted as a sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So you have a group of people experiencing a play together which is not only addressing PTSD but also allowing the audience to work through it. Which is one of the many wonderful things theater still can (and does) do today.
It’s pretty extraordinary we’ve come from societies joining together to experience a piece of theater to viewing ourselves as solitary individuals, within a crowd, but not participating with the crowd. Or not participating with the piece. Or feeling like we can’t or shouldn’t. There’s a certain level of fear there, if you ask me. American society has, to an extent, been conditioned to keep the arts at an arm’s length. Convinced that they’re not worth investing in. That when we have to cut corners, the arts must go. So maybe the question isn’t just “Why save the arts?” but “What is it about the arts that’s making those in control want diminish its power?”. Because the arts are pretty damn powerful. They engage with us, heal us, force us to confront ugliness and pain, force us to see something we’ve been trying to hide from. The arts can question authority and political regimes. And the artists behind all of that are fearless.
At this moment, The United States is seeing a resurgence of artists who are flexing their muscles and using their voice, questioning and shedding light on issues being swept under the rug. There is a swell of energy in the artistic community which is producing amazing work, and an energy which will hopefully keep pushing and questioning and engaging audiences in conversations which don’t have a home elsewhere. This is what artists do. Even during the McCarthy Era, there were many artists who fought back and refused to compromise their voices due to fear or oppression. And the work those artists created helped pave the way for and influenced contemporary artists. And the work being created today has a force and a power that isn’t always seen or quantified, but it’s always been there. And part of that power comes from the voices that have come before us. While the defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts is a large step towards stripping artists of their power, that power is not gone yet. And that power will always be there, as long as there are artists who are willing to push forward and produce work that is asking questions and is aiming to find truth. But also, that power will always be there as long as there are audiences who are willing to support and engage with those artists.