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Issue 25

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In this issue ~~

* Social Responsibility and the Arts

* Creative Tip

* Wise Words

* Bookshelf

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Social Responsibility and the Arts

There is an old saying that much is expected of those to whom much is given. As artists, each of us is given a special gift, and it is our joy, as well as our responsibility, to express that gift. It may be expressed in the privacy of our room, or in a way that impacts our community, our country or the world.

Throughout history, artists have been on the cutting edge of society. One of the by-products of creativity is the ability to see things in a new and different way -- to put the pieces together in a way that no one has before. Artists are often the first to see cultural trends and may – intentionally or as a natural outcome of their work -- find themselves on the front lines of those trends as a result of the self-expression that they are compelled to and that is so much a part of them. Art has the ability to move societies forward by presenting new ideas in a creative and palatable way, as well as bringing forth beauty and the expression of human emotions. In some cases, artists are in a position to reach multitudes of people and open their minds through the power of their celebrity.

Having a voice is a privilege as well as a responsibility. Artists like Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who were forced to leave their homeland in order to practice their art, can tell you just how much of a privilege it is. And many artists use their celebrity status to bring attention to a worthwhile cause, as a way of giving back to the society that gave them their success. When actress Helen Mirren visited South Africa on behalf of Oxfam in early 1999, she told "The Express" that "This is the first time I've done a celebrity trip like this and while in some ways I feel awkward, I realise that all the fantastic work organisations such as Oxfam do wouldn't get half the publicity without a face to promote them."

Along with the vision that comes with creativity, artists have the ability to open people's minds with their words, sounds and images. In a recent address to the International Federation of Actors, John Kani, Chairman of the National Arts Council in South Africa, said, "It is a miracle I can act. I am an activist. I am a fighter for decency, for humanity and for freedom and democracy. I am not an army person. I will not pick up arms. My arms are the words of great writers, of great dramatists. My bullets are the words I put on the paper and my spear is me in front of an audience when I say, 'I've got something to say to you. You've got to know something is happening in this community, something is happening in this country that needs your attention, that needs your participation.' I scream when the audience does not hear me, does not participate because this is a God-given, one time opportunity to communicate with the audience and say, 'we have some work to do.'"

Sometimes this responsibility requires courage. When actress/comedienne Ellen DeGeneres agreed to have her character "come out" on her sitcom, she received a tremendous amount of controversial media coverage. Her show was cancelled, but Ellen's sacrifice created a new level of acceptance for the portrayal of gay relationships on TV. When Will & Grace debuted two seasons later, nobody even blinked. Shirley MacLaine put herself on the line by coming out in another way, by speaking openly about her spirituality and opening the door for the New Age spiritual movement to come into the mainstream. And these acts of courage pale in comparison to John Kani's experience of being detained for six weeks by the Secret Police for starting a black actors' union in 1970.

The U.S. government recognized the importance of the arts during the Depression, with its Works Projects Administration (WPA). The Federal Arts, Writers' and Theater Projects hired unemployed musicians, actors, directors, painters and writers to work on various government-funded projects. Many accomplished artists, including Orson Welles, Eugene O'Neill, John Cheever and Zora Neale Hurston, got their start through these projects.

With WPA funding, artists provided thousands of paintings, sculptures and murals for public buildings. The Federal Writers' Project employed writers to preserve massive amounts of American culture that would otherwise have been lost, by recording the life stories of over 10,000 people from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups. The "American Guide" included a rich collection of rural and urban folklore that described the feelings of people coping with life and the Depression, studies of social customs of various ethnic and occupational groups, and authentic narratives of ex-slaves about life during the period of slavery. A vast storehouse of material, published and unpublished, is housed in the Library of Congress.

Benjamin A. Botkin, the folklore editor of the Writers' Project, hoped that the histories would help foster tolerance and stem the rising tide of fascism he was seeing in Europe. And while writers were not supposed to do their own creative work on Project time, their assignments provided a good training ground and a wealth of material. Passages from Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side were drawn from an interview he did with a Chicago prostitute. Without tape recorders to assist them, writers learned to capture dialect when transcribing interviews. Ralph Ellison used this skill, along with specific phrases he picked up, for his novel, Invisible Man.

The theatre of the late 60s and early 70s was very much a part of the political scene. Shows such as Hair and the satires of the San Francisco Mime Troupe reflected the antiwar sentiments expressed earlier by Greek dramatist Aristophanes in his play, Lysistrata. The Mission Statement of the San Francisco Mime Troupe states that: "We do plays that make sense out of the headlines by identifying the forces that shape our lives and dramatize the operation of these giant forces in small, close-up stories that make our audience feel the impact of political events on personal life."

In earlier times, painters such as Francisco de Goya and Pablo Picasso expressed these same views. From 1808 to 1814, during the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish war of independence, Goya served as court painter to the French. He expressed his horror of armed conflict in The Disasters of War, a series of starkly realistic etchings that were not published until 1863, long after his death. Picasso's Guernica portrayed the horrors of the bombing of Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques, during the Spanish Civil War.

Artists' contributions can be on a basic human level as well. The purpose of early Greek drama was to provide an emotional catharsis for its audience by portraying universal emotions. Modern books and films continue to provide that catharsis, along with much-needed rest and relaxation in these busy, stressful times. They stimulate our imagination and sense of adventure, expanding our view of what is possible. And what would the world be like without the beauty of art, music and poetry to soothe our senses?

To quote John Kani once again: "We have been able to sway opinions of politicians and decision makers by bringing them into our work. That responsibility will always be ours. The performing arts from ballet, to opera, to poetry reading, to oratory in Africa, to drama on stage, to workshops and all that, will always be the most powerful tool that we have in making people change their minds, change their attitudes, take in what is surrounding them."

So if you have a strong feeling or vision that you feel compelled to express, know that you're not alone, but part of a proud, honored and powerful tradition. You can take courage from that.

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Creative Tip

Being socially responsible doesn't mean you have to join the Peace Corps or move to Bombay. You can contribute in a way that feels right for you. That may mean volunteering at the local soup kitchen or working with children, contributing money or praying for those in distress.

 

Wise Words

"More important than a work of art itself is what it will sow. Art can die, a painting can disappear. What counts is the seed."

~ Joan Miro

"It is only by introducing the young to great literature, drama and music, and to the excitement of great science that we open to them the possibilities that lie within the human spirit -- enable them to see visions and dream dreams."

~ Eric Anderson


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Bookshelf

(click on the book graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)

The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 . . . Jerre Mangione

Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America . . . Jonathan Harris

Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers' Project . . . Pamela Bordelon, editor

All of This Music Belongs to the Nation: The WPA's Federal Music Project and American Society . . . Kenneth J. Bindas

Francisco Goya . . . Ann Waldron

Genesis of a Painting: Picasso's Guernica . . . Rudolf Arnheim

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu . . . Simon Callow

 

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© 2000 Sharon Good. All rights reserved.

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