This summer was a lot. That may be the understatement of the year. Between George Floyd, BLM, Covid, and Killer Hornets, my social media feeds were POPPING. Almost overnight I found myself surrounded by the term Anti-Racist. Angela Davis’ “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist,” was suddenly the hashtag in everybody’s insta stories; articles in the NYT described the best anti-racist training programs; my inbox was flooded with anti-racist art events and talks, and I looked up and realized that I didn’t know what anti-racist meant and had no clue what anti-racist art entailed.
As a black woman and a self-proclaimed activist I was horrified and ashamed by this realization. Was I exempt just by being a black female? Was this something only for my well-meaning white friends? Was this another social media fad like the instagram blackout that didn’t really mean anything in actuality and would burn out after 24 hours? And what in the world was Anti-Racist Art?
So as a good millennial who is crippled by fear at the notion of having to ask a real live person something, I turned to the internet. I googled “What is anti-racist art” and the all-knowing search engine that has 431 million results for “why can’t I own a Canadian” had nothing. The results kept linking me to large arts organizations’ statements of support of diversity and inclusion, but nothing about the art itself.
So I bit the bullet. I girded my loins, put on my big girl pants, and picked up my phone and called someone other than my mom for help. Just kidding I sent an email, do you think I’m a boomer or something! I asked the EXCEL team 2 questions about anti-racist art and they blew my mind with their responses. God I love my job.
What does Anti-Racist Art mean to you?
Anti-racist art confronts racism head on, challenges accepted norms, and centers on BIPOC artists and their stories.-Caitlin
It sounds great for arts administrators, composers and those who plan to make their own works: just pick more art that focuses on BIPOC stories and artists. But for many of us, we don’t have much control over the content of the art we got hired to make. What does confronting racism head on look like for a violinist who signs a contract with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra? What about a latinx actress who keeps getting TypeCaste (see what I did there) as maid roles?
The reality for many of us is that while a career in the arts may have “freed” us to follow our passions, many of us feel “bound” to the will of casting agents, artistic directors, conductors, and the incredibly eurocentric focus of classical art. So what does anti-racist art mean for the rest of us?
To me, anti-racist art means creating work that strives to be inclusive and seeks to challenge the audience to think deeper about their own anti-racist agendas. -Kayla
To me, anti-racist art is art that takes into consideration the responsibility we all have to stand up for the equality of people of all races, particularly Black people and artists in present day America. Anti-racist art tells stories that the artist can genuinely tell from their own experiences and heritage (i.e., the art does not appropriate another person’s culture). Anti-racist art considers accessibility and audience from a position of equity: Who is this work for? Who will it affect, positively or negatively? How can audiences/viewers access this art (e.g., physically, financially, etc.)? Anti-racist art uplifts those fighting for equity, and this can occur in many ways, from direct storytelling to promotional materials. -Gala
This focus on audience strikes me as a really important and often missed opportunity. I know as a perpetually overbooked and sleep-deprived student myself, that sometimes in our attempt to simply get everything technically ready and learned, we skip considering audience engagement. But taking steps to diversify the audience base of performances we are a part of is something that we can all do. We have more agency than we allow ourselves. Whether that’s putting pressure on the organizations we are a part of to prioritize outreach and accessibility or taking it into our own hands and using social media and emails to publicize events in more inclusive circles, we have options. And while the most elitist organizations may not take those steps themselves, if we reach out as individual artists and create connections and partnerships with targeted communities, I can’t imagine any theater or hall turning their nose up at additional ticket sales.
2. Do you think art has a responsibility to be socially responsible or is it ok for it to simply entertain?
I don’t think art has to have a responsibility to be socially responsible, unless the intent of the work is to do so.- Kayla
I don’t know that art itself necessarily has a responsibility, but I believe that artists should always be mindful of the impact that their work can have. I also believe that art can serve multiple purposes at once and may be entertainment for some, but meaningful and purposeful on a larger scale for others. -Melissa
Art has power. There’a a reason art is targeted in almost all dictatorships and countries trying to suppress dissent. With power comes great responsibility but what is art responsible to? Art can be used to cause great harm. Jeffrey Mason talks about this power of art within the context of theater and fiction and he says that,
“Both myth and theater create fictions that can displace the actualities– the putative referents– that inspire them. Any fictional process, through selection and interpretation, both obscures and reveals its subject… Thus, the actor [artist] is a virtual mythmaker, one who can either reinforce or challenge the fictions that the audience cherishes.”
That’s a lot of responsibility. I wish more artists thought about their role in creating, perpetrating, or challenging the narratives they’re apart of.
Art DOES have the responsibility to be socially responsible, especially in this day and age. As artists, we have an opportunity and responsibility to use our voice to be a part of the conversation: the change. Not making the effort to learn nor understand the extremity of the state of the world and call to anti-racist action puts you on the side of the oppressor, neutrality is oppression. Knowledge IS power, speak up and speak loud, generally AND artistically. -Karen
Once we start explicitly adding ideology to art, the line between art and propaganda begins to blur. While of course we can attempt to influence people towards beneficial outcomes, what does it mean to try to persuade an audience? How do we hold ourselves accountable? Those seem to be important questions to have answers to before we jump in headfirst (Do I get a sticker for talking about propaganda and not bringing up the Nazi’s? I mean that would have been a perfect opportunity to drop a Bertolt Brecht reference but I restrained myself).
While the revolutionary possibilities are exactly what calls me to art, I don’t know that I feel comfortable “requiring” all artists to follow suit (I have no power to require anything anyways so I’m not sure what I’m concerned about lol). What about beauty? What about art that tries to capture and reflect nature and emotions? What about art that makes us laugh? That matters too.
We all need art in our lives for individual reasons, which we should recognize will fluctuate over time and content. Sometimes I want to delve into “serious” art, and sometimes I need to escape through “entertainment.” And of course, art-making can achieve both ends at once — so much powerful, socially-driven work can also be compellingly engaging, and yes, even fun (see my recommendations below)! And yet, in my view, just because a work of art can be aimed at escapism doesn’t mean we can excuse artistic creators from the social responsibilities in the context of that expression, whether we are talking about representation, racial inequity, or any other social issue that is relevant to the story. I also personally think the “escapist” stories that do justice to real-life contexts often are more compelling stories and, perhaps, more likely to resonate with audiences not just in terms of niche interest, but in the broadest sense. -Jonathan
Exactly! What do we do when art that’s seen as “feel good” entertainment, perpetuates violence on marginalized communities (I’m looking at you Porgy and Bess)? Escapism and entertainment is necessary, but does that give a free pass on being socially conscious?
I don’t think these two categories are mutually exclusive! I think socially responsible art definitely can be entertaining and enjoyable. However, the downside to a work originating only from the desire to have it entertain would be that perhaps the creator is not conscious of when a trope or joke is at the expense of a marginalized group, or how the production of the art could be insensitive or harmful. So I guess as I’m typing this, I’m realizing that my true hope is that all art be created from a caring, questioning, intentional perspective. And the result of that reflection is going to look different to different artists. A quote by Nina Simone comes to mind here: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” -Gala
What Do I Think?
So what do I think? I hope that all artists try to be good stewards of the power of art. I think that great art does reflect the times, that it’s a reflection of society, but if our polarized world tells us anything, it tells us that we all have very different views of what that looks like. I think all humans have a responsibility to protect and care for each other, and I think we need to continually push ourselves to see who we are labeling as “other” and thus not our responsibility. I think if we see anti-racism as helping us to better care for each other, and we happen to also identify as artists, than we have a responsibility to be mindful that the art we create aligns with our own values and moral codes. We need to be aware of and feel comfortable standing behind the ideology inherent in our art. I’m not saying we have to be perfect or all knowing. Times change, people grow, opinions shift, and I once thought denim on denim was chic, but we should be willing to engage, discuss, learn, and push ourselves out of our comfort zones. I think I now have way more questions than answers, but maybe just maybe as I investigate these topics in this series I’ll find some more clarity. Stay Tuned!
Want to do more exploring? Here are the EXCEL Team’s recommendations for our favorite artists creating anti-racist art or at least what it means to us.
- Camille A Brown, Kyle Abraham
- Classical music
- Courtney Bryan, Jeff Scott, Valerie Coleman, Gabriel Lena Frank, inti figgis-vizueta, and Carlos Simon
- The Watchmen, I May Destroy You, Pose
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Auto-biography of Malcolm X, Sister Outsider
Upcoming Anti-Racist info events
DEI Virtual Summit Arts+Social Change: Building an Anti-Racist World Through the Arts Mon Oct 16th