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I talk each month to a good friend who’s centrally involved in community-based arts in another country. She has been scanning the horizon for articles and essays that talk about the power of art grounded in community and in real life, commentary that highlights the need to support such work. There’s plenty of writing that treats “the arts” as one big thing, as if a national symphony, major museum, or regional theater has the same aims or faces the same challenges as struggling community-based artists and their communities.
Aside from platitudes about capital-A art, most of this writing employs tired secondary arguments that haven’t worked to change the big picture for the past forty-plus years. I’ll put the quiet part in parentheses: art employs people (so does everything else), kids who have art classes get higher test scores (but not necessarily because they have art classes, as cause-and-effect can’t be demonstrated), neighborhoods grow more prosperous when artists move in (and gentrification-based displacement moves the former residents out).
My friend’s point was that the unique abilities of collaborative, participatory, truth-telling art are especially needed now, yet they seem to be treated by most commentators as an afterthought—if they’re mentioned at all. Their real value has no place in the discourse.
Why? What to do?
One why is that mass media coverage of art and artists, especially as the topic connects to policy and funding, partakes of a very superficial understanding that treats a group of artists collaborating with others to make a mural, for instance, as just a slightly different version of the individual studio artist working alone on a really big painting. Commercial media gravitate toward celebrity, prestige, status, name recognition. Coverage privileges those who fit the mold.
Consequently those who make art with communities—art made from people’s own stories, fears, and hopes—mostly aren’t the ones who write for mass media, arguing for funding or policy changes. Mostly, their circumstances don’t grant them access to major media; and their resources (often enough to survive but not prosper) don’t leave a lot of free time to engage in debates.
Mostly, then, their work speaks for itself.
Another why is that their work speaks loudest to those nearby, who can experience it firsthand. That work doesn’t observe from a distance; it speaks from within a community. Almost always, it offers the people involved in making it (and others in their communities) some relief from the feelings of internalized powerlessness fueled by oppressors, relief that is anchored in reality. It pulls back the curtain of despair to offer a glimpse of possibility. It’s not false hope, because people know that those closest to a problem are best-equipped to devise solutions. They have firsthand knowledge. When they say what is needed, they usually know what they are talking about. Their lived experience generates understanding, while expertise at a distance far too often leads to the opposite.
Art of this type is a threshold experience. It doesn’t set out to change people but to invite them to know themselves and their worlds through art. Like other profound experiences—love, loss, power—it exists in multiple dimensions that words alone cannot capture fully. The people who do this work know that experiencing it is the best way to understand it. But given radical underfunding and official indifference (or hostility), how could that path to understanding expand to the necessary scale?
When my friend and I were brainstorming about this, the strangest thing popped into my head: Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels. If you haven’t seen it (and have a high tolerance for the idiosyncratic and occasionally offensive), do stream it now.
Joel McCrea plays successful Hollywood director John L. Sullivan. He’s sick of making musicals and other fluffy crowd-pleasers, and has his head set on making a film called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (The Coen brothers borrowed the title and some of the premise from Sturges for their 2001 film of the same name.) This is from the opening scene:
Sullivan: l want this picture to be a document. l want to hold a mirror up to life. l want this to be a picture of dignity. . . a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
Studio Execs: But with a little sex. – With a little sex in it. – How about a nice musical?
Sullivan: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this. . . with the world committing suicide? With corpses piling up in the street. With grim Death gargling at you from every corner. – With people slaughtered like sheep!
Studio Execs: Maybe they’d like to forget that.
Over the protests of the studio execs—who also make the point that Sullivan, whose bread was buttered from birth, knows nothing of trouble—he decides to outfit himself with old clothes from wardrobe and set out to experience suffering firsthand. This exchange with his butler takes place just before Sullivan departs:
Sullivan: I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy. Then I’m going to make a picture about it.
Butler: If you’ll permit me to say so, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty. Only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor.
Butler: l doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy. l believe quite properly so.
The picture alternates wild slapstick with political satire and heart-wrenching injustice, mixing genres at a speed and with an abandon one seldom encounters. Sullivan is at first thwarted in his intention to take to the road, almost giving up until circumstances thrust him into the thick of the suffering he wished to observe, only this time for real. One scene trades in crude stereotyping, the next depicts humanity so closely and sensitively observed that you want to rage and after that, cry.
The reason the conversation with my friend reminded me of Sullivan’s Travels is that once he is rescued from a truly terrible fate—six anonymous years on a chain gang—Sullivan is offered the opportunity to make his epic. He turns it down, despite the studio execs pointing out that the nationwide news coverage of his odyssey is sure to make for boffo box office:
Exec: Sully, l want to tell you that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is going to be the greatest tragedy ever made. The world will weep. Humanity will sob. It’ll put Shakespeare back with the shipping news. Your personal courage, your sacrifice… the lengths to which you went to sample the bitter dregs of vicissitude… will make O Brother, Where Art Thou? positively the undisputed
Sullivan: I’m sorry to disappoint you…But l don’t want to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?… l want to make a comedy.
Exec: But it’s had more publicity than the Johnstown Flood. – What are we gonna do with all that publicity? Oh, brother.
As he changes course back to comedy, Sullivan remembers his time on the chain gang, when he and fellow inmates were taken to a Black church to share a screening of Mickey Mouse cartoons with the congregation. He hadn’t laughed in so long he had to ask his friend if whatever was happening with his mouth was laughter. Then the laughter opened his eyes to the consoling power of art. The movie takes a simplistic route here, leaning into laughter as the best medicine. But I don’t think it actually shows that amusement is the strongest healing power. What Sullivan really saw was possibility, people who seemed entirely beaten down by the cruelty of their oppressors awakening from the trance of resignation and remembering themselves.
You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel test. It first appeared in cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, in which a character offers minimal feminist criteria for seeing a film: “The movie has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man.” The test I’d propose for cultural commentary would go like this:
The author must not use “the arts” as a descriptor in any way that implies intentions, execution, or support are basically the same for all organizations and artists, it’s just that some are bigger or smaller.
The author must know enough about culture-bearing and culture-building to ground the writing in real experience, talking knowledgeably about arts work that offers consolation, fellowship, and inspiration rooted in the true conditions communities now face.
The author must understand that how we feel and think about our lives and societies has as much to say about our capability to infuse them with love and justice as any white paper or dataset. More, really. And how we feel and think is the material of all art, all beauty and meaning. So work that engages social issues isn’t layering politics onto what should be pure art. All art is political, some reinforcing the status quo, some questioning it.
What then could we who care about these things do to disrupt the steady stream of pleas for “the arts” that pretend enlarging funding for red-carpet institutions is the only key to a vibrant and healthy society? I’ll start with two ideas:
First, call out spurious arguments. I’ve gotten lazy, more often sighing and turning the page than replying in protest. I’ve never seen a whit of proof that enriching those who have a great deal (whether the topic is tax cuts for the rich or supplemental funding for the halls of marble and red velvet) benefits the rest of us. I’d better wake up.
Second, look for opportunities to lift up the voices of those who by themselves lack the time, connections, or resources to enter into the mainstream debate. If people who read cultural commentary never get to hear from anyone whose work challenges conventional views, how will they even know there’s something else to consider?
What else shall we do?
I’m tempted by something suggested by Veronica Lake (whose character is credited only as “The Girl”), a hard-luck actress who takes up with Sullivan as a tramp and soon discovers his true identity. She forces him to allow her to accompany him in his search for trouble by threatening to expose him:
The Girl: I’ll follow you, and I’ll holler, “This guy’s a phony, ladies and gentlemen. This is Sullivan, the big director from Hollywood. A Phonus balonus, a faker, a heel”—
Butler: If l may join in the controversy, sir… I think the young lady’s suggestion an excellent one.
Sullivan: You may not join in the controversy.
I think we may and we can.
“Meri Mano Yaro.” I heard this ghazal (poem of love and loss) sung by Bhupinder Singh (and written by Naqsh Lyallpuri) and have not been able to get it out of my head. Nor have I been able to find an English translation (if you know, dear reader, please share). Let it take you away.