OPINION: The arts are dying at the hands of our leaders

Caitlyn Dieckmann

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Last month, a critique by Jason Farago published in the New York Times outlined the ways in which President Biden’s administration can help the struggling arts. Days before its publication, playwright Aleshea Harris and many other creators joined together to campaign for relief for artists during COVID-19.  

     President of the American Guild of Musical Theatre Ray Menard wrote a letter to the Biden administration asking for financial relief, writing, “The Performing Arts industry is a crucial piece of the machine that keeps our economy healthy and brings us together.” 

     Theatre creators across America have begun a movement with the following hashtag: #ArtsHero. In order to make arts a priority under the new administration, #ArtsHero is a campaign currently collecting letters from artists across all disciplines and partnering with the Dramatists Guild of America.  

     On Dec. 27, former President Trump signed the Save Our Stages Act, but the Screen Actors Guild and Actors’ Equity Association both condemned the bill as not enough.  

     Rachel Chavkin, director of the Broadway hit musical “Hadestown,” who recently joined UCCS Presents’ “Prologue” series last year, spoke to CBS2. “The theater industry was one of the first to close, and it’s going to be one of the last to reopen,” she said. Chavkin was one of the many artists that lobbied Congress into the $15 billion bill for independent performance arts venues.  

     With so much power behind the movements, the political lobbying, the critiques, even acts of Congress, why are the arts still the last piece of food on the table?  

     When all is said and done, what is left over? We can wear masks and line up for vaccinations. We can color-code the risks we face. We can shut everything down, open it back up and shut it back down again. Certainly, these patterns are not forever, so what is next?  

     Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” So, if theatre can mix music, poetry, acting, lights, sound and so much more, it looks merely like a performance on the outside. But that performance means something to us, something deeper and something necessary. Why are Aristotle’s thoughts on art important in this conversation during a pandemic? 

     When is the last time you went a day without hearing music? The cathartic properties in music offer something different to each and every single one of us.  

     Anyone who watches a painter stand in front of a blank portrait watches them spill their whole self onto a canvas and connect to their feelings and thoughts, whatever they may be, through art.  

     Watching a troop of dancers on stage is the actual communication of emotion through physical movements.  

     Theatre presents the rules of the world on stage by making statements, evoking the audience’s emotions, stimulating creativity and creating a culture sensitive to the environment that surrounds us.  

     When we can’t move forward, when we feel like giving up, when the world feels like its ending, art pushes us from behind. What more has this pandemic taught us if not that the world can really suck at times.  

     Art heals. Art lifts us. Art offers a tomorrow.  

Three Flags, 1958 painting by Jasper Johns.
Image courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art.

     I voice to our current State, America the beautiful, which painfully exhibits all of the performing arts on its most valuable days like inaugurations just to turn around and snuff these artists, that everything will be better when the doors to performing arts open again.  

     There is no tomorrow for the arts if we do not focus on the now, and the now is bleak. What artists are facing now can be destabilizing for the future of live performing arts. Actors are unemployed, choirs are silenced, bands don’t march. Biden’s inauguration was daring enough to showcase some of the biggest performers in the world, most who do not need the publicity or the grandiose applauds. But I argue Biden is part of the problem.  

     In 2017, the arts and culture were found to provide the nation’s GDP with $877.8 billion. So, it makes sense that the previous $15 billion stimulus for the arts was not enough, and the arts will never get what it needs from Congress. So, money is not the answer. In times like these, the biggest solution can be a statement. Biden had the chance to make such a statement, that the performing arts can continue even in a pandemic and missed the shot.  

     If I were president, I would have demanded “Seasons of Love” be performed live in front of the Washington Monument with actors masked up standing six feet apart at my inauguration. Or even better, a tribute to the Broadway shows that were shut down at the beginning of the pandemic by hiring composers to put together a mash of their music to be performed by the very actors that lost their jobs. Again, right in front of the Washington monument, masked-up and six feet apart.  

     But no. Let’s have Katy Perry with a net worth of $330 million perform a live performance of her ear-bleeding “Firework.” I highly doubt that unified our country any more with the actual fireworks behind her than it would have without her performance all-together.  

     The point here is that by using extremely popular, highly watched national events, the new administration could have shown their support for the performing arts industry, and a statement such as that goes further than stimulus bills. It could provoke the country to start figuring out ways to open our theatre doors back up and allow a second response to this pandemic.  

     I argue that Aristotle is right. Art offers us something more than its outward appearance. What it can offer our country is huge in the way of healing. The arts should not be the last thing worried about, and yet our nation’s leaders choose to ignore the calls for change, the movements and the songs that can only be sung in front of a video camera.  

     The arts will need something big, and if our greatest hope is the new administration, then I fear it will be no better than what we had before.