Art: it isn’t just for fun (an editorial)

October 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Last night, I attended a fund-raiser for the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) which is an organization that “provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks through litigation and advocacy to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.”

Basically, they do good work for a lot of people who don’t have the means or the wherewithal to stick up for themselves.  At the event, people told stories about individuals sentenced to the death penalty who had been egregiously non-defended by the lawyers assigned to them; stories about people put in jail for minor crimes like loitering sitting in jails because, after the charges against them had been dropped, no one had bothered to tell the prison that they could be released; a story about a woman who got caught performing oral sex on her boyfriend in high school who, years later as an adult, was retroactively added to the sexual offender registry so that she could no longer live in the home she owned with her husband or work at her job because of the restrictions the registry imposed on her.  SCHR defends people who can’t afford to defend themselves and they’re not well-supported in the South, essentially, because they are a liberal organization working in a conservative part of the country.  Probably, you should consider making a donation to them.

All of the above got me thinking about the director Peter Sellars – about something he said.

Early this past summer, at the Americans For The Arts Half-Century Summit (where I was honored, along with other Neo-Futurists, to attend and perform at the summit as an Artist in Residence), I heard Mr. Sellars speak as part of a small panel (including the incomparable Liz Lerman) on the topic of The Role of the Artist In Society.  I can’t recall what, specifically, kicked off the tangent, but he got to talking about this girls’ prison he’d been to or learned about.  The strictest rules and most draconian punishments were imposed on these teen-aged girls including seemingly arbitrary rules like “you have to sleep on your back,” “you can’t cover your face/head while you’re sleeping,” “no mirrors.”

They were affecting and startling stories – in that respect, not unlike the ones I heard last night – and Mr. Sellars was clearly affected.  He asked (I’m paraphrasing) “what if all of the artists decided to make art about the prison system for a year? what would that do for awareness? to change the situation?” (He asked it better in real life than I’m asking it here, but hopefully you get the gist.)

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since, and it came back to me last night: “what if all of the artists – or even just a fraction of all of the artists – decided to make art about the death penalty? or about the economy? or about the environment?”  What if just all of the artists in Atlanta – where SCHR has their offices – decided to make art about the issues SCHR is grappling with.  Would they find more community support?  Maybe just a more informed and literate dialogue about the issues at hand?

I don’t imagine that everything would – poof! – get better, much as I realize that the death penalty, sexual offender registries, and juvenile offenders are complicated issues, not easily sorted out like so many misunderstandings.  Still, it seems to me that artists could have a role – a significant one – in bringing a better, and perhaps more nuanced understanding of these (and other) issues into the conversation that we – collectively, in our communities – are having about them.

To paraphrase Rogers & Hammerstein (in Oklahoma!): the artist and the activist should be friends.

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