Sunday, November 20, 2016

When Art Speaks for the People: A Response to the Aftermath of the "Hamilton" Statement

Art is a unique and often underrated treasure in any society.  For most, we don't visit museums to learn about the economic and political structures of societies past (although some do, don't get me wrong).  We visit museums to see the art that was left behind.  We pay for overpriced tickets to see the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Starry Night.  Throughout history, people have risked their lives to protect art from destruction, from burying Celtic crosses in Ireland during the Reformation, to forming special forces groups (The Monuments Men) in World War II to retrieve and hide artwork from the Nazis.  One of the first things to be criticized, banished, boycotted, or rejected in any society where the government is trying to assert absolute control over its people is art.  Artists are arrested and tortured, books are burned, murals and paintings destroyed, and theater productions shut down or censored because they dare to challenge the status quo.  Why?  Because art, in all its forms - music, painting, sculpture, writing, theater, etc. - is meant to challenge us and make us think.  It's meant to stir a person's deepest emotions, tell a story in a new and striking way, and express the greatest thoughts and concerns of its creator.  Sometimes, art does much more than this.  Sometimes, art is used to raise up the voices of the voiceless, publicly criticize injustice, oppression, and violence, and inspire bravery in those who wish to see the world change for the better.

That is what Hamilton: An American Musical is all about.

Image result for hamilton
From it's conception, Hamilton was always meant to tell the story of America by Americans.  That's why it's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was so intentional about having a diverse cast, and about having diverse forms of music, most prominently rap, which he called "the music of the revolution."  Hamilton's story is one about standing up against oppressive forces that try to control us, and overcoming nearly impossible odds to "take our shot" and "rise up" in order to change the world.  It's an amazing piece of art that has been recognized worldwide as being inventive, challenging, and for telling a story that is just as relevant today as it was in 1776.  It's the story about an immigrant who came to the United States, fought for everything he had, was opposed at nearly ever step along the way, but never quit advancing and doing what he believed was right.  Alexander Hamilton himself was a flawed, hot-headed individual who is not without his critics today, but his story of revolution and the building of a nation for all Americans is one that continues to be lived out in our modern world.

When Hamilton's Broadway cast spoke after their November 18th show to Vice-President elect Mike Pence, they weren't only following the path of artists and artwork before them that spoke the concerns of the people.  They were also living up to the tradition of their namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the rest of the Founding Fathers.  This is a nation built on protest and revolution, on opposing forces that threaten the well-being of all of its citizens.  So, it was not out-of-line for the cast of Hamilton to raise those concerns to Vice-President elect Pence.  What was out-of-line was for President-elect Trump to demand an apology.  What is out-of-line is all those now calling for a boycott of the show.  What was out-of-line was the individual who interrupted a performance of the Chicago show by shouting profanities and saying "we won, you lost, get over it."

Never mind that the statement by the New York cast was actually quite polite and respectful while at the same time remaining raw and honest about people's concerns.  Never mind that Vice-President elect Mike Pence has said he "wasn't offended" and actually really enjoyed the show.  It's actually not even a fundamentally wrong thing for people to want to boycott the show as a result, because it's their right to do so.  What is most concerning about this whole ordeal is that people do not believe the theater is an appropriate place for that kind of statement.  Trump himself tweeted that "The Theater must always be a safe and special place."  And it should be, but for those at greatest risk in society at large.  The theater, especially a show like Hamilton, is where the loudest critiques of government and society should come from for the very reason it should always be a safe and special place.

Art has always worked to hold those in power accountable for their actions.  We see this displayed in works of graffiti on city walls, in songs protesting acts of war and violence, in stories and poems written to express the fear and pain of the oppressed and subjugated.  When our nation's leaders start criticizing art and try to "keep it in it's place", try to dictate what is appropriate for it to depict, speak to, or act out, we need to be very concerned.  Being a good leader means accepting the criticism of your opposition, hearing the voices of your people most scared, and allowing dialogue to take place whether you like what is said or not.  We are a nation that claims to value freedom of speech, that allows for art to flourish and expand our collective understanding of the world we live in.  When we start trying to silence the art world, however, it's not just the artists that suffer.  We all do, because we are no longer challenged, we are no longer made to think about the world beyond ourselves.  It is the art of our society that will tell our story to future generations, and it is up to us to determine whether it will be a story about people who turned their backs on the injustice and fear surrounding them, or stood up and held those in power accountable, making them answer for their beliefs and actions.  There is a lot of work that must be done in this country, there are a lot of voices, beliefs, and opinions that must be taken into account, but it is through art that those voices, beliefs, and opinions are more widely heard and known.  So, even if you didn't agree with the cast of Hamilton's statement, you need to be ready to protect their right to make it, because someday you might need them to speak on your behalf as well.

Until next time,

The statement of the Hamilton cast, compliments of Twitter.

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