Where Are Conservatives in the Arts?

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San Francisco' Ruth Asawa School of the Arts Theater Students perform David Mamet's "Revenge of the Space Pandas" as part of the 2011 Young at Art Festival. Photo: Flickr user, David Gallagher.

There’s a conversation I want to have. It is about the relationship between conservatives and liberals in the arts. Last year at this time, I was on Capitol Hill for Arts Advocacy Day. As the leaders of Americans for the Arts reminded us that day, “You can’t spell bipartisan without ART.” But as I look around in my artist circles I wonder, are all artists liberal?

When you hear “conservative artists,” your thoughts may turn to politics and to white men in Hollywood in particular: Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, John Wayne, Chuck Norris, Bob Hope. Maybe you think of the classical music world: Herbert von Karajan, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Wilhelm Furtwangler. Perhaps you think of the more complex stories of the Coen brothers, Gary Oldman, David Mamet, Patricia Heaton, Billy Corgan and Robert Duvall; or author Yukio Mishima and writer Knut Hamsun or novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine; maybe you think of Johnny Ramone, John Ford, G.K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, Jorge Luis Borges and Saki (H. H. Munro); maybe you think of playwrights Phelim McAleer and Peter Handke. Some readers might think of Alain Delon and Jean Reno in France. Others might turn their thoughts to Scotland with sculptor Alexander “Sandy” Stoddart and composer James Macmillan.

Some readers might mention Stage Right Theatrics and its annual Conservative Theatre Festival, which aims to “give credence to a truly marginalized group of artists whose voices are systematically silenced.” Stage Right Theatrics defines conservative theater as promoting such beliefs as:

The existence of a higher being, greater than human beings, who sets standards for living.

Traditions of eras past provide guidance for our future and should not be dismissed out of hand as antiquated.

Individuals should determine their own fate, with government’s sole purpose being to promote liberty and defend our sovereignty.

The exceptionalism of the United States.

The free market is the economic system most likely to promote fairness and equality (as well as democracy).

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I mostly use the term “conservative artists” to describe artists who live in communities or families that are socially, culturally or religiously conservative with ideological consistency, adhering to traditional values that they deem to be moral (e.g., modest hair and dress, clear gender roles and often separation, purity, family focus, and opposition to the LGBTQ+ and feminist movements). Often these groups live in social bubbles by choice or by legal necessity, they could have their own ambulance and emergency services. Many cultural and religious conservatives also could be political and fiscal conservatives, but this is not necessarily the case generally.

My definition of “conservative” aside, my overall artistic goal is to bring people together. So when fiscal or political conservatives live in one ideological bubble and fiscal and political liberals live in another, we have the same sort of concern around sociological divisions as we do with religion. Our echo chambers have deepened in the past few years, thanks to the algorithms of social media. So, yes, let’s talk about social and religious conservatives, and fiscal and political conservatives, in the arts.

What follows is a list of four reasons why we need to have this conversation.

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Reason #1: Insular Bubbles

Recently I had the honor of being the choreographer and dance coach for an Orthodox Jewish girls high school’s Erev Shira (evening of song) — the annual musical theater production. This year it was Headlines (a.k.a. Newsies). One hundred and fifteen high school girls participated and they were amazing, selling out the 800-plus seat theater twice with female-only audiences.

Our restrictions were plenty: all costumes must cover bare knees and elbows (including rolled-up sleeves); female and male characters cannot touch in any way, even with an all-female cast; the girls must wait a number of hours between eating meat and dairy (no birthday cake at rehearsal); choreography cannot have hip movement nor shoulders going forward-and-back (shimmy); nun characters must be soup ladies; the rehearsal schedule must take into account Purim and other holidays; and audiences cannot show appreciation for the performers with anything other than light applause.

Even so, the circumstances of this all-female cast and crew offered many benefits: teen girls stepped up for all roles, including tasks often done by boys, such as set construction and running crew; teen girls not once concerned attracting boys; all the men’s bathrooms temporarily turned into women’s bathrooms; and 115 young ladies supporting one another and making sure their validation was equitably distributed.

The experience was beautiful, but I kept thinking about what could have been. Like other students growing up within a private, religious education or homeschooling, these girls have little to no opportunity to make friends with young people with backgrounds different from theirs. Yet today’s social rifts demand that we start bringing folks of different social circles in closer proximity to one another. We need to burst the social bubbles a bit, and the arts are a wonderful strategy to share cultural experiences and grow understanding between and amongst one another. Could artists of conservative backgrounds participate alongside less or non-religious and liberal peers?

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Reason #2: Real Inclusion

When we in the arts champion “diversity, equity and inclusion,” do we mean everyone? Do we mean conservatives? Religiously, culturally or otherwise? Are conservative artists not identifying as artists because the arts are a predominantly liberal sector?

Many of the young artists of conservative backgrounds in my programs — which include Syrian, Iraqi and Burmese/Rohingyan refugees as well as Orthodox Jews — are extremely talented. But they feel they cannot have a future in the arts. They often do not feel welcome even when they want to participate and their families support their interest. I am struggling to find role models for them. I know there are conservative, professional artists out there, but where? Perhaps I could point them to British-Asian artists, such as Shobana Jeyasingh, Akram Khan and Mavin Khoo of Akademi Dance Company. But must an artist make work for co-ed audiences to be considered “professional”? Do gender-segregated, conservative productions get reviewed by mainstream critics?

Many of the Orthodox Jewish girls I mentioned previously have grown up with lessons in dance, music and theater, but few have the goal of going professional. Ultimately, as adults they perform exclusively in the pro-am, all-female, Orthodox Jewish community theater. During the rehearsal process, I tried to expose them to as much arts sector news from the “real world” as possible. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago offered me free tickets for my students and I was excited because none of them have seen professional dance in their lives. Unfortunately the girls cannot go because Shabbat doesn’t end until 7:49pm on the day of the performance. They could go another day but Hubbard Street only has Friday and Saturday performances this season.

Perhaps real inclusion in the arts will include more awareness of the timing of performances and activities, more professional opportunities with gender segregation, more modest options in costume and content. Will such changes lead to more conservative artists participating in the arts in general? I know from experience that we can include cultural conservatives and liberals simultaneously; last year we had a conservative, gender-segregated performance on the same mixed bill as transgender burlesque.

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Reason #3: The Well-Being of Artists

For those who survived the Culture Wars of the 1960s and 1980s, the lines might be clearly drawn in the sand. Arts are progressive. Arts are liberal. Arts are secular. But I’m starting to question more as I encounter artists, liberal and conservative, looking to connect their spiritual, political, social and artistic lives to their activism and service.

A recent trip as a guest lecturer to the dance department at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT, made me realize how important the balance of faith, family and dance is for many emerging artists — especially those who are, say, conservative and Mormon. BYU is the only place where I’ve led an identity exercise and a student said “I identify as happy.” Students seem well-prepared for artistic careers grounded in faith: nearly 99% of the student population is LDS, and while some are politically and religiously liberal, they are predominantly conservative, voting red for generations. As a relatively high percentage of students are already married or planning to do so, couples attend classes together. Those planning to start a big family simultaneously plan to stay active in their field as artists, educators or advocates. Unlike most other universities, a large portion of alumni return as faculty members.

Students and faculty at BYU maintain a gentle, genuine support for their peers. There is real inclusiveness and openness toward other belief systems. They approach the strict university dress code and antiquated practices in cultural appropriation with humor and awareness. They are starting to question the systems and policies in their world while maintaining their devoutness. Hymnals sit beside massage rollers in the studios. Rehearsals begin with prayer.

The ballroom program at BYU is impressively strong technically and highly popular with students of many backgrounds. It turns out that ballroom dance is especially popular in Mormon communities. Many of the stars of Dancing With the Stars stars, including Witney Carson, Lindsay Arnold, Lindsey Stirling and Lacey Schwimmer, are LDS.

Looking specifically at dance as an art-form, is it sinful? The Bible addresses dancing several times. Exodus 32:6, 19-25 and First Corinthians 7:1-3 mention that it is sinful to dance in order to tempt yourself or others, or to bring attention to yourself or your body. Some interpret this to mean that men and women should not dance together outside of marriage. Yet in Exodus 15:20, 2 Samuel 6:12-16, Psalm 149:3 and 150:4, and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, dance is welcomed as a form of worship, praise or celebration of God. Some restrict their art-making to that context. As Brian Schaefer of The New York Times explained, “Dance and devotion have a long, rich relationship in Judaism.”

Yes, conservative Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and on and on, dance and make art and make music. They tell stories and produce plays. They do spoken word and innovative multimedia designs. In Chicago, Muslim hip-hop dance artist Amirah Sackett is gathering Muslim artists for workshops and showcases at American Islamic College. At the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, my friend was impressed with “how ecumenical and non-didactic their exhibitions and scholarship are.” Another friend explained to me:

The LDS community is really beginning to compile resources documenting our relationship to the arts, historically and presently. Mormon Arts Center, out of NYC is hosting its second annual Mormon Arts Festival, June 28 to 30 this year, and recently hosted a one-day conference at the University of Utah to talk about how a course about Mormon Arts would be taught at the university level.

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Reason #4: Egalitarianism and Need

At BYU, any student who wants to participate in the arts can do so. The fine and performing arts departments are crowded with non-majors. The hallways buzz. There seems to be a lack of elitism often felt at other universities, too. For example, arts students gladly serve as custodial staff. The university provides facilities — studios, wellness center, etc. — that are simultaneously state-of-the-art and unpretentious. Students take great care of their facilities without having to be reminded. At BYU, everyone is an artist. Technology enhances possibilities. And they are not alone. The manifestos such contemporary artists as The Stuckists emphasize this point.

In today’s gig economy, with more and more self-declared artists in the world, artists are blurring the lines commercial and non-commercial. They are increasingly entrepreneurial by nature and necessity. The nonprofit arts model might be broken for them; the fight for public dollars might be too brutal. Many young artists are looking for alternative ways to fund their art-making, and the privatization of the sector might be the way to go. Will we return to the days of arts patrons? Will communities pull away from public funds and tithe their own artistic activity, creating more insular bubbles?

We must also address the ongoing need for space. We must recognize there is a centuries-old relationship between arts and sacred spaces. This should be an important part of our conversation. Look at what Reggie Wilson is doing in NYC. But are we ready for this conversation? Here is how a friend of mine, also an artist, recently put it to me:

I think the reason most artists with more conservative values are afraid to let people know their views is fear of discrimination. I know i would lose a lot of work because of the incorrect assumptions they make because of how I vote, at least that’s why I don’t tell many people. Making room for conservatives in the arts can happen when people start listening.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.