Backlash to the Backlash

The week ahead is going to be eventful, stressful, even terrifying, for all of us. (And no, I’m not referring to how we’ll probably crash the AEA servers when the Public Theater advance EPA sign-up goes live on Wednesday.)

For the past two months we’ve all watched the realization of many of our worst fears, a slow motion car-crash we’ve been powerless to stop. We’ve seen a parade of blatant incompetents nominated to head critical government agencies, with the clear goal of dismantling those agencies and throwing the lives of millions into chaos as a result. We’ve seen a grotesque coarsening of our national discourse the likes of which we’ve never seen. We’ve seen evidence of collusion with hostile foreign powers, and we’ve heard the reporters of that evidence mocked, berated, and denounced. And through all of this, there’s been one notion that some folks have clung to as a desperate source of hope: propelled by a need to serve as the resistance, as the backlash to what’s to come, a moribund arts scene is about rediscover its sense of purpose. Film, music, theater – it’s all about to get good.

Lately, however, I’ve seen some tremendous backlash to this notion, outlined in a number of essays and spread far and wide online by friends of mine. How dare you? they cry out, in one way or another. It is, after all, the height of privilege to look forward to all the amazing protest art, since it implies that the terrible things you’re protesting – the scuttling of our social safety net, the likely assault on the civil rights of our most vulnerable populations – don’t directly affect you. That you can view these things with bemused detachment while evaluating the desperate protests against them on aesthetic grounds. Plus, the argument continues, did these works of art we fetishize so actually solve the problems they protested? Did Woodstock actually stop the Vietnam war, or British punk the Thatcher administration? Did the artistically fertile Weimar era stop what came next in Germany? Shouldn’t we focus our energies on protests that actually work?

These arguments have substantial merit. And they make me feel a little guilty, since I’ve been writing quite a bit here about the merits of artistic protest. Heck, I’ve been doing it since back when Nate Silver and company were assuring us this couldn’t possibly happen – back in September, I wrote a post called “Silver Lining,” looking back at my time with Classical Theatre of Harlem and expressing my belief that similarly exciting work would spring up once more, should the need arise. Was I really being so flippant, prizing my own artistic fortunes over the fate of our nation?

I hope not. And I’d like to return to a point I made in that post, and find myself making frequently – that there are more extraordinary playwrights working today than at any point in my lifetime. This is true in the major regional houses, and it’s true in the forgotten hole-in-the-wall theaters where new voices are truly developed. Even if we weren’t about to backslide on decades of social progress, even if we weren’t about to give the nuclear codes to somebody with reputed mob ties and a gnat’s attention span, they would be creating great art.

But would anybody care?

Times of crisis don’t change the arts so much as they change the things people feel they need from the arts. And clearly, it shouldn’t take…this…to make it matter. It shouldn’t be this hard to make people listen to the voices of others around them. It shouldn’t take fear of this magnitude to make people care. But history, and my own experience, states quite clearly that it does.

And as we ramp up our plans to protest, to engage and debate, I think we should take a good hard look at why this is the case – where this solipsism comes from, and how we go about dismantling that. This seems to me like a fine thing to protest.

While we still can.

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