Art surrounds me and is flowing through me these days. It is in the spoken words of Genny Lim at the opening of the San Francisco Mayoral Arts Forum. It is in the composing of others responses to OutLook Theater Project’s “the GOD project” quiz into an original poem that dances delicately between genders, sexualities and faiths. It is in the quiet moments when my pen is racing across a blank journal page filling with incoherent thoughts. It is in the conversations between queens and transients while the Creation of Care created by the League of Burnt Children at 16th Street BART Station on a Saturday night burns with red votives, music and film. It is the sermon given by my friend and business partner at Pine United Methodist Church about destiny’s making. Everywhere I turn, I find art whether that be outwards, inwards, forwards, backwards, up, down and/or sideways.
To me, art is more than commodity and culture maker. Art is life, death, being, meaning, seeking, yearning, uniter, divider, inspirer, questioner, provocateur. It is the things people show up for, the means of engaging disparate communities, the manner by which those on the fringes are heard. Art makes us pay attention and what challenges norms. Art, simply, is everywhere all the time without fail.
And yet, as I read and listen to policymakers, funders, politicians and those with influence within “culture-making” institutions, I hear most about art as commodity and tourism generator. I hear a lot of platitudes about how art draws in revenue in blighted areas, the need for affordable housing for artists, the essentialism of arts in education and personal experiences with the symphony or classic forms of theater or curated exhibitions in galleries and museums. Occasionally, I hear a glimpse of understanding related to arts’ power to involve learners of different persuasion, but that is always in the context of children and youth and never adults. Rarely, do I hear how art is vital to the creation of an engaged democracy or open and equitable government or caring, compassionate communities. For me, what is most important is not what I am hearing but what I am not hearing (especially from those in positions of influence) for it speaks to an inability to see how the arts can truly transform our world into a place where all are heard, seen and valued. Then again, a question must be asked: Do those in positions of influence really want to see and hear and value all?
Formats like forums or panels or discussions miss the mark of art because they are divorced from all of the disparate, divergent, diverse pieces that make art in the first place. How can one understand art only through people sitting at the front of the room answering questions from a moderator even if Genny Lim opens the forum poetically?
This disconnect threatens art which in turn threatens communities. It relegates art into “Art” – the things that fit neatly into boxes and four-walled spaces. It reinforces the separation of artist and audience through carefully controlled formats, which often do not engage audience in the making of meaning. It places art on a stage as defined by those who see it as only commodity and culture-making. It divorces art from the experience and makes it something you purchase. And all of these divisions and relegations affect our communities, especially communities on the fringes, because as art is divided it divides our communities.
I want to hear and see and feel the power of art especially in the spaces and places where policymakers, funders, politicians and those of influence within “culture-making” institutions gather and discuss art. I want art to create more transparency, integrity, connectivity and equity within democracy. I want to attend a police accountability meeting and find a performance artist leading the entire group in theater of the oppressed activities to build better understanding between the police and the community. I want visual and media artists to create dynamic, interactive diagrams that show the flow of revenue and expenses in government so all can help find solutions to vexing budgetary problems. I want sculptors and conceptual artists to work with city planners to create instillations that explore responsible, ethical and equitable city sustainability. I want literary artists and choreographers to creatively tell the stories of those whose lack of health care create disparities within bodies so we can create communities of care in collaboration with the Department of Public Health. To me, this is the power of the arts that transcends mere commodity and culture. This is the power of the arts to connect communities, compose new narratives and transform our selves into more compassionate people.
And this vision takes political will, money and resources to be realized. It takes looking outside of boxed art and four-walled spaces. It requires imagination and creativity and active involvement of artists in government. It means shedding old ways of doing and finding new ways of being. It requires those who do hold positions of influence to stop talking and writing about art only as commodity and “culture-making” and using tired methodologies that reinforce divisions. It requires an ability to look around the world and see and feel and hear art where it is and not where it “should” be. And most importantly, it requires love.
For as Martin Luther King said, “Love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” And ultimately, art is love.