Last week there was a great article in the New York Times about a professor at a community college in Kentucky who got sick of reading reports about poverty and social problems in Eastern Kentucky. Rather than issuing one more report or one more set of statistics, he decided to write and produce plays about the communities there and the problems they faced. You can read it here (if you’re not over your Times limit). It’s really inspiring to see how someone has put people’s lives in a context that they can understand, using song and story, and community people as actors.
The articlemakes me think about the many uses and purposes of art. In particular, I was stuck by a quote at the end of the article by Robert Gipe, the professor:
“Somewhere along the line, artistic validity became associated with everything ending in a mess,” he said. “But if you articulate what’s best in us and put characters in front of people who don’t resort to their basest instincts, that’s real, too.”
What Gipe is saying, I think, is that you make a choice about your aesthetic, and the way you view the world, and how you present it artistically. He wants to uplift people, and that influences how he approaches his art. Some artists would say that art shouldn’t have to have a purpose – it just is. Gipe and others (including me, usually) think their art does have a purpose. It’s to show the world in a way that people look at it anew. And it’s to offer hope.
There is a tendency among people who view themselves as artists to not want to make things happy at the end, and a tendency to dismiss something with an uplifting ending as sentimental and cheap. As a result, artists can tend towards the cynical, or dark side. This is a strain that runs through art, and it is something every artist has to deal with. One reason, I think, is that art with positive endings tend to be more marketable, and artists tend to worry about whether they are commercial. Most artists want to be non-commercial and successful (if that seems like a paradox, there it is…) So, if a commercial art errs on the side of uplift, “serious” artists may err on the side of darkness.
The other reason artists shy from positive message is that that kind of uplifting image really tends to reinforce the status quo. “See? Everything is okay!” uplifting art seems to be saying. It’s what sets our teeth on edge with the American movie industry and the Disneyfied portrayal of conflict. “It’s all just individual effort,” such art says. “You can do it!”
And of course, that’s a lie. It is you, but it’s also the world you face. People have their own abilities and will, but they also are handed a set of circumstances that are sometimes overwhelming.
This tension runs through all art. Most artists who labor on their work in the end are concerned about three things: 1) speaking the truth as they see it 2) exploring their craft and artistry 3) making a living. There’s enough tension in those things to keep you up late at night. Believe me.
But the work of this theater group shows the false dichotomy in saying you can’t be uplifting and produce serious art at the same time. I think particularly of the work of Liz Lerman, who goes into communities and has them tell the stories of who they are through dance. It is uplifting and real at the same time.
I don’t want to sugarcoat the world, but I also don’t want to say there’s no hope. That’s my aesthetic. When I get it right.