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Looking for Strength in Artists

Equity in the Arts
Black and White photograph, John Eisner speaks and gestures with his hands.

I have been overwhelmed by the rapid political changes that are taking place, and their implications for the security of my family, friends, and organizations like The Lark that support free speech and truth telling. But when I feel powerless, I look for strength in artists.

I often think that if we weren’t a theater company, we’d be a leadership institute. Our job is to create space for insightful voices to rise above both fear and the mundane--especially voices from historically marginalized communities, whose stories of struggle ring most true as we strive to hold on to our moral compass. In the words of Doug Wright, President of the Dramatists’ Guild and a Lark-affiliated playwright, “The arts function as a collective social conscience.” In this spirit, I am counting on artists to describe our condition truthfully, show us the path of empathy and compassion, and lead the way forward. Now more than ever, I am counting on artists to invent new language that describes both the world as it is, and what we want it to become.

Others in our community have told me they feel similarly powerless. The democratic institutions upon which many of us stake our hopes for a fair and equitable society are under strain, pulled between the fear of change and the embracing of it. Even our desire to find solace in objective truth is being thwarted by an Orwellian brand of “Newspeak” that contradicts simple facts with “alternative” facts. But we know that politics is almost always childish and mean--a kind of whiny and selfish horse trading game born of the failure to imagine ourselves stewards of the world and its children. From the shrill political rhetoric on social media to the foot stamping in Congress, we are lost in dysfunction.  

Which is where the arts come in. In a sense, the arts exist outside the real world, in a territory of the imagination where the stakes are low enough that we are all able to shed our defensiveness and participate. The arts are rehearsal for real life, and we all know how important rehearsal is to achieving a fine performance.

This is why I am concerned, among other things, about proposed changes in federal law related to tax deductible contributions. And we are troubled by the prospect that the National Endowment for the Arts will be reduced or dissolved.

Doug’s remarks are part of a more extensive interview focused on why both the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities have been targeted:

The arts function as a collective social conscience. Artists are, by their nature, truth tellers. Across the millennia, artists have told damning truths about war, politics, and the darkest reaches of the human heart. Corrupt men have a reason to fear us, and so they'd like to see us silenced. This has nothing to do with money; the NEA is .003 of our annual budget. The military spends more on paper clips. This is all about demonizing artists and the work that we do. We mustn't forget that."

Once you’ve had a chance to read this interview, I hope you’ll consider calling your senators and representative to let them know how important you feel the NEA is, not only to artists but to all of us. You can also help by signing this petition that advocates for the preservation of the NEA.