The Arts Now Have a New Purpose

Photo: Flickr user, Michael Hogan

I received a Christmas newsletter from a friend the other day lamenting the current state of affairs aka The Trumpocalypse. His message ended with the line: “It wasn’t the time yet and we globally probably moved a bit too fast,“ as if to suggest that the election of Trump — like the Brexit referendum — was a rejection of social progress.

This is wrong. It was not too soon for an African-American President of the United States of America, and the efforts to rescue refugees from the Middle East were not so aggressive as to cause a major fault line in the European Union. I’ve said it before and I’m going to keep banging on this drum; the principal reason for the election of Trump and other such political disruption is income inequality.

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Last month, I shared some statistics showing that the Reaganomics of the 1980s sparked a new kind of class gap that continues to widen to this day. The New York Times has just added some dramatic new findings about growing economic inequity:

  1. The bottom half of the country has been shut out from income growth for 40 years.
  2. Government spending has helped lift lower incomes, but only a little and most of that relates to health care spending for the elderly.
  3. The top 1% and the bottom 50% have swapped their relative shares of national income.
  4. Government redistribution of income has become less impactful, as taxes are much less progressive than they used to be.

These numbers are frightening, but what matters more is the human behavior resulting from these economics. Unlike previous generations whose socioeconomic classes were largely separate and whose mobility was limited, we now share in a world where we are teased everyday with images of a good life just out of reach. This phenomenon is intentionally designed to motivate the acquisition and consumption of more and more goods and services, and it is based on the agreed-upon notion that prosperity comes to those who work hard and do right. What we’re observing is anger and frustration on the part of those who feel like they’re being left behind no matter what they do.

We are all teased by a good life just out of reach.

Racism, misogyny, sexism and other forms of discrimination have already worsened with the campaign and promises of our President-elect. Folks on the alt-right feel empowered to pursue a nativist social agenda. But I would contend that these behaviors are as much the result as the cause of the problem. Certainly there are some people for whom racism is fundamental to their belief system, yet I think that its prevalence today reflects how many people feel left behind and are inclined to lash out at “the other.”

The great sadness in our current position is that the revolution demanded by Trump voters is not going to reverse income inequality or narrow the class divide. The President-elect is setting the stage for a new tax policy that will favor the rich, a new trade policy that will lead to the loss of jobs, and the dismantling of a healthcare plan all about helping the disadvantaged.

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We in the arts have the opportunity to help the world out of this big pickle we’re in. I love the definition of art as work that starts with context and purpose; the world is now rich in context for our work. So let’s embrace the sector’s new purpose in some of the following ways:

Inspire people to lift themselves up: Music, dance, theatre, opera and other forms of expression provide opportunities to lift and be lifted. This can happen by being inspired at a performance, gaining life-skills through arts participation, or embracing creativity and innovation in ways that make one more employable in the modern economy. We need more Misty Copelands changing more lives.

Motivate support for those most in need: There are many people in the world who are truly in dire straights and unable to do anything about it. These include refugees, victims of war and injustice, and those trapped in poverty. For them, we must work alongside them to express their stories and motivate others to provide the support so needed. The United Nations Art for Humanity project is a good example.

Rail against this unequal system: Art professionals must create work that challenges the current system. Each new transgression deserves a loud response that in turn motivates protest. People may becomes inured to the never-ending bad news coming out of CNN, so it falls to artists and arts organizations to keep us alert and vigilant. Think of how Anna Deavere Smith is inspiring action simply by repeating the stories of the oppressed.

Show us what happens if we don’t make changes: And finally we should be telling stories that suggest how much trouble we’ll be in if we don’t solve the problems associated with a society of haves and have-nots. Mr. Robot is amazing storytelling about plucky hackers fighting Evil Corp.

I hope that by now we’ve learned the folly of preaching to the choir. We have to be more aggressive in getting out our message. But we also have to make sure that the message goes beyond the traditional progressive audience base to reach those people who’ve gotten us into this mess, and who we now need to get us out.