The Arts, One Year Post-Election

A year after the 2016 election, the same questions persist that have poked at the arts community for decades prior. The open debate about the roles of race, gender and sexual identity in this freshly riven society is not new, so much as it is in high relief. The echo chambers within the arts have decried the lack of equality and free expression for what seems like forever, but now these expressions bleed into the mainstream in a way that makes some uncomfortable. The oppression that has always been a reality for so many has now become a bleak reality that citizens of privilege must now confront on their TV screens, in their local art galleries and on their local stages. With an administration that holds seemingly little value for the arts (witness Trump’s casual disregard of the Kennedy Center honors, for example), artists now bear a special responsibility to shout from the dark corners and make heard the voices that cannot speak for themselves. What is troubling, however, is the fear that still pervades, even within mediums that pride themselves, so often, on making a stand. Even as Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket provides a provocative staging of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman/The Slave, provoking uncomfortable ideas as current today (if not more so) than they were 50 years ago, so many other venues cower behind balance sheets and halfhearted lip service to ideals that wind up being yet more reverberations in the choir loft. For every challenging mural on the buildings of Providence, we have a well-intentioned, but empty gesture, easily ignored by the public. The risk of mollifying a subscriber base or any demographic is to deny them the opportunity to empathize with others, to learn about experiences different than their own. Yes, there has been a noticeable change in the arts in the past 12 months, but it is a cry in the wind. What is more noticeable is what has *not* changed. Art cannot operate out of fear or complacency, or it will fade away along with its privileged base.