On Art, and the Responsibilities Therein.

So, in case you’re living under a rock (or you don’t live in America, in which case you have the privilege of missing out on many of our slightly ridiculous cultural spectacles), let me tell you about something that happened last night: the Golden Globes. The Golden Globes is a show honoring folks in film and television that basically opens up awards season for the common man. It’s a slightly sillier, markedly drunker version of the Oscars, and I’ve watched it every year since I was a kid. Of course, our family’s viewing method is pretty unique. My mom — as someone who works in the fashion industry — only really cares about the pre-show red carpet antics. My dad — who helped instill my love of war movies, arthouse films, and psychological thrillers — only really cares about the powerhouse awards (best film, best actor/actress, best cinematography, etc.). My brother — who could care less about any of it — just wants the whole thing to be over as soon as humanly possible. Thus, we DVR both the pre-show and the behemoth itself, and then proceed to judiciously fast-forward through any and all commercials, unnecessary musical numbers, and generally boring bits. Basically, we experience the Cliff Notes of version of most awards shows, and we like it that way.

Last night though, I wanted to watch the whole thing. Every cringe-worthy punch line, every uncomfortable close-shot of an actor’s face. Something about celebrating art — the good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy — seems particularly urgent in the face of our current reality. There’s a lot to be said about the state of the US at this particular moment in history. People older and wiser than me have spent a lot of time dissecting the resentments and realities that have led to where we are. What I know for certain is that there are deep and cavernous divides between citizens of our nation. In some ways, we seem to live in completely separate worlds. How do we bridge those gaps? Well, if you ask me, art is a great place to start.

The way I see it, there are fundamentally two kinds of people in America at the moment: people who view art as escapism, and people who view art as activism. For those who think of art as an escape, artists have no inherent worth or value. They have no right to personal opinions, or powers, or truths. The artist is not a creator or an empath, but a mimic, no more than a wind-up toy designed to perform upon command.

In someways, it’s a nice view to have. A simple one. It makes the world a much less complicated place. If all art is merely entertainment, then it doesn’t require the consumer to confront hard truths. It doesn’t require walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It doesn’t require introspection or empathy or thought.

The thing is though, being an artist requires all of that. To submerge yourself in a character, to paint the world as you see it, to tell a story with your body, you have to experience it. You have to go to a place inside yourself where people matter on a fundamental level. Where stories matter. You have to let go of your preconceived ideas of the world and let art consume you for art’s sake. It doesn’t work any other way.

Thus, to me, art is by definition activism. It is raising your voice, their voice, our voices to say something true. To tell your story, their story, our stories. I was brought up to believe that art matters. I have a very special woman to thank for that.

Like many people all across the world, I grew up heavily influenced by my grandmother. A slip of a woman that stood only a little over 5 feet tall, she was nonetheless regal. She was stubbornness and elegance and grace personified. She was an artist. A member of the first graduating class of the Fiorello H. Laguardia High School of the Performing Arts, she was an actress of incomparable skill who inspired my career in performance. Though she didn’t perform often, she directed shows in the community and patronized theater, opera, and cinema until the very end of her life.

More than just participating in the arts, my grandmother believed in their power to change people. To help them grow. All across the United States, she did her utmost to inspire others to believe in the power of the arts as she did. She worked and volunteered at museums and galleries and theaters. She recorded works of literature for the blind. A tiny white woman, she pushed for greater appreciation of Native-American art, African-American art, Japanese-American art, of minority art of all kinds. She did not speak for others, but asked that we listen to their stories, that we helped their voices carry. She knew that, from our place of privilege, we were responsible for telling our privileged peers that it was time to listen to other people’s stories. She understood that art is a powerful bridge for understanding ourselves, others and the world around us. She knew that art only works, only matters, when we don’t just tell our stories but all stories. She believed in a world where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

She was the one who took me to my first shows. My first independent films. We spent many of my childhood days at art museums all across the country and the world. Big and small, well-known and unknown. We watched opera on PBS, debated over NPR, went to every new exhibit, bought every book. She supported minority artists of every stripe and fiercely promoted emerging artists from every walk of life. Without knowing it, she gave me my first lessons in being an ally. She taught me that artistic diversity is not just a footnote in an anthology somewhere but a requirement for a greater, brighter, better world. She taught me that art requires work, a lot of it, but it is so, so worth it. 

More than that, she showed me that, as artists, it’s our responsibility to speak up. To speak out in the best ways we know how. She taught me through both her words and her deeds that art has a power all its own. She proved to me in myriad ways that, as artists, we’re no wind-up toys. We’re advocates. We’re activists. We’re storytellers. We are arbiters of truth.

Yesterday, Meryl Streep stood up at the Golden Globes to accept a lifetime achievement award. It was an acknowledgement of the vast array of stories she has taken inside of herself and projected back into the world. It was a long-awaited ‘thank you’ for the empathy she has instilled in so many of us. And though her voice was strained, and her heart was heavy, she did what my grandmother always told me to do. She stood from her place of privilege and told an important story. She spoke a painful and powerful truth. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. My grandmother would be so proud.

–S

Day 9: January 9, 2017

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