I’ve been hearing this phrase lampooned recently. “Now more than ever.” The pseudo-exasperation commences: if I have to read that one more time on somebody’s website or giving campaign materials….gah! Is it trite? Certainly overused. True, true.
But the laugh-cry, the bitter pill, is that this statement feels so resonantly true, with each passing day of more astonishing public statements and outright atrocities committed towards people of color, to women, to the LGBTQ community. I say astonishing — not because it hasn’t been happening, but because every time I look around me I think, what year is this? Is this real? Are we really so low? Many of you can say yes, and we have been and we know, and nothing else can astonish me. But today I am bewildered by American society. Now the mistrial in the case of the murder of Walter Scott. Another strike against justice. And now another hit from another direction: I am trembling with the loss of so many, many artists in the Oakland fire, at the tragedy of Ghost Ship a few days ago now. And I get up every morning and I think, now more than ever. Now more than ever. We are failing our people so badly in so many ways: we cannot yet realize equity and justice for people of color, we cannot properly house and care for our youth, our artists, our native peoples, our elders, even our veterans; we cannot create safety and equity for women, for LGBTQ individuals, we cannot we cannot we cannot. Forgive the long list, I am mourning today.
I live in Oakland. I, too, used to live some place like Ghost Ship. Did you? I directed one of my first shows there, an enormous display of the wealth of talent and the richness of our possibilities: 17 artists from different backgrounds working together, and living together, turning the entire enormous space into a creation of performance, music, visual art; a boat turned on end with wine flowing out of it, and the 2 story stage, the dancers and performers, the handmade, original prints, the costumes, designs; the photography, the painters, the lights and all creations, joy, safe harbor, challenge. Now we live in LA, NY, SF, and Oakland. Of course Oakland. Scattered and all of us, all of us, still doing the work, inspiring our audiences, our clients, our students, our society to think just a little differently, to see the world as it could be, pushing us towards our best selves. Now with children or farms, as architects, professional photographers, environmentalists, award-winning journalists, professors, designers, musicians, and leaders of nonprofit arts organizations. A nonprofit, by the by, which advocates for better support, professional development, and clearer pathways into work for artists. A guild for teaching artists. That’s what I do now. But 12 years ago, living in a converted, 100 year old, alternately cavernous or labyrinthine space, building out the bits and pieces and installing our bathrooms ourselves, highly questionable basements and hundreds of people gathering, rehearsing, holding classes and dinners and shows and parties with no permits….this could have been any one of us.
These spaces we build give us harbor: to sleep, eat, be held in community, CREATE. Because where else can this happen? How otherwise is this afforded? Currently, it isn’t. Uzbekistan and Mexico offer more to their artists, according to this compilation, with Germany spending roughly $20 per capita as compared to our NEA’s measly $0.41! Support for artists means support for all these things: for a manner in which they too can live and work safely. And what does the general public get out of it? Why should this be some sort of provision, what need have we to think of it? “We,” the general society, get our greatest thinkers and dreamers and teachers. We get tomorrow’s architects, photographers, environmentalists, journalists, professors, designers, technicians, musicians, and leaders, representing equitably all people, shining back a vision of how much greater we can be. Artists orient, we both find direction in our seeking and then give direction to those at sea. Our ships sail to new shores. We inform, become, evolve, create, give, and inspire. This is part of being human, one of our finest attributes, evidence of our best selves: the development of the arts, and with it, our progression as a society and a culture.
Now more than ever. And clearly many other countries in the world have figured this out. Sadly, the US has not.
When we have conversations about the arts, I am going to stop explaining why the arts are so vital. Asked and answered a hundred times, thousands of citations and studies, indeed thousands of societies risen and gone, cultures evolved and merged and transmogrified via the arts. I am asking now that foundations, advocates, city governments, schools, arts spaces and places, and the businesses which cannot survive without this creative class of thinkers and builders and dreamers, come together and figure it out. Let’s talk. The Arts and her artists are seeking shelter in the storm and we need a better solution.
Standing Above The Clouds
Young filmmaker Jalena Keane-Lee on her process of working with native Hawaiian teaching artists/movement leaders in her essay and film, Standing Above the Clouds.