Art and Politics

Dec 14, 2020

Recently during a public Zoom conversation with the choreographer Bill T. Jones, I mentioned that his work has always seemed political to me, rooted in the big social issues of the time, including AIDS, social justice and questions of morality. At first, he countered by suggesting that the black body is inherently political.  Then he said that in the period following his partner Arnie Zane’s death, French journalists would interview him in an attempt to understand his art-making practice. They would say “you are an Artiste Engagé,” that is, an artist engaged in the world. This would inevitably lead to discussions about identity, history, race and sexuality.

Jesse Green wrote in The New York Times, “In the wake of Trumpism, Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus pandemic, many theater-makers, through readings and other nonfiction performances that recreate real-world events, are grappling with politics more directly than ever before.”  Perhaps the trials that we are currently undergoing can teach us to look critically and to re-examine our assumptions about the institutions and the systems in which we function. Perhaps we can reify the notion of art as resistance to the status quo with the understanding that if you do not actively resist the currents of the day, you will be swallowed by them. To function with force and consequence within a consumerist, capitalist culture, perhaps it is necessary to be an Artiste Engagé

Unlike Bill, I grew up in a white body, and I often heard the phrase, “art and politics don’t mix.”  For a while, having no other reference, I believed it. Then, in my 20s, after experiencing theater outside of the United States, I began to wonder why, in comparison to plays from the rest of the world, most North American plays written during the second half of the 20th Century felt so narrow in scope. Except for a few hyper-didactic political productions that seemed simplistic and two-dimensional, the subject of most of our plays was “you, me, our apartment and our problems.”  In comparison to elsewhere in the world, theater in the United States sorely lacked engagement in the social and political realms.  Then I began to wonder where the saying “art and politics don’t mix” came from.

Looking back to the first half of the 20th Century, I could see that, in those days, words spoken upon the stage in the United States were considered valuable weapons that could urge people to reconsider their circumstances and act differently. The theater was palpably brimming with productions that addressed current events, social issues and politics. In the early part of the century, Eugene O’Neill and the Provincetown Playhouse experimented with new forms. O’Neill’s innovations were rooted in his interest in social movements, psychology and science. His work with colleagues Susan Glaspell, Robert Edmond Jones and George Cram Cook and others exerted a significant impact in the culture. The Harlem Renaissance Theater Companies flourished with drama and performance at the forefront. In the 1930’s the theater, unable to leave aside crucial issues, became increasingly political.  Playwrights, actors, directors and designers joined together with the tangible feeling that they could change the world. And to do so, they needed new forms. Young American theater artists were ready to accept fresh ideas and were open to innovations. They absorbed the ideas of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator so that instruction and entertainment could function together and convey social meaning. They borrowed from the theater of the Russian Revolution including Soviet agit-prop, designed to educate audiences about important policies or events and inspire concrete action.

Led by Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theater Project (FTP) set out to create relevant art, encourage experimentation in new forms and techniques and made it possible for millions of Americans to see live theater for the first time. The FTP was funded under the New Deal Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Of the $4.8 billion allocated by the WPA, $27 million was approved for the employment of artists, musicians, writers and actors under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  Flanagan established specific FTP chapters dedicated to showcasing and celebrating the work of previously under-represented artists including foreign language productions and 17 African American “units,” set up in cities throughout the United States. The FTP also gave birth to the Living Newspaper, the Federal Players, a Children’s Theater Unit and a Vaudeville/Variety Unit.

The Moscow Art Theater’s visit to the United States in 1922-23 also fell on fertile soil. Konstantin Stanislavsky’s approaches to acting galvanized young people looking for an alternative to the tradition of melodrama that had been so prevalent on the American stage. The Group Theater, founded in 1931 and led by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg chose plays that reflected the social and political problems of the times.  Clurman wrote, “From consideration of acting and plays, we were plunged into a chaos of life questions, with the desire and hope of making possible some new order and integration … it was an experiment in living.”

I was born in 1951 and grew up during the second half of the twentieth century. After having realized the gaping lacuna in my field, I was curious to know what had happened to all of the engaged theater artists of the first half of the century. Why had I inherited a watered-down and narrow misunderstanding of the Stanislavsky system but received little to no information about or inspiration from the political engagement of the theater artists of the previous generation?  Then, looking at the lives and careers of those individuals, it turns out that the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had a significant impact upon all of them and that perhaps the trope “art and politics don’t mix” arose from the fact that, due to the actions of HUAC, all of these politically engaged artists either were blacklisted, had to work under pseudonyms, left the country or changed their tune about the role of art in a democratic society.

The Federal Theater Project suffered the zeal of witch-hunters and it was accused of supporting racial integration between black and white Americans while also perpetuating an anti-capitalist communist agenda. in June of 1939, a vote of Congress finally eliminated the FTP. Fueled by the fear of Communist infiltration, Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC began to investigate intellectuals and artists with political ideologies. The increasing power of HUAC turned into an open witch-hunt in the late Forties forcing most radical intellectuals to go underground or go through rather difficult times. The epic theater, as Brecht had advocated it, ceased to exist, with the exception of people like Julian Beck and Judith Malina with their Living Theater and other individuals and groups who picked up the mantel of experiment and anti-commercialism.

Meanwhile I felt robbed.  What happened to politically connected art that flowered in the earlier part of the twentieth century? I did not feel tutored by the individuals and companies that should have been an important resource, including Clifford Odets, Marc Blitzstein, Elmer Rice, Susan Glaspell, John Howard Lawson, Hallie Flanigan, Robert Sherwood, Paul Green, Cheryl Crawford, Edward Perry, Carlton Moss, H.F.V. Edward, Irvin Shaw, Harold Clurman, Orson Welles and so on.  Why was I learning about a watered-down and narrow understanding of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s approach to acting but not about the clear political commitment that was happening, especially during the 1920s and 30s, within such companies as the Group Theater, the Provincetown Players, the Lafayette Players, the Federal Theater Project, the Mercury Theater, The Living Newspaper and others?

The same post-war period that robbed theater of its political relevance, gave birth to a movement in visual art called abstract expressionism that eliminated the possibility of extrapolating any political reference from a work other than the artist’s relationship to the canvas or the sculpture.  Because any hint of subversion could make an individual suspect, it was perhaps prudent to make art that carried no representation of content whatsoever. One scholar later reflected: “It is ironic but not contradictory that in a society…in which political repression weighed as heavily as it did in the United States, abstract expressionism was for many the expression of freedom: the freedom to create controversial works of art, the freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists completely without fetters.”

Following the Second World War, a climate of Cold War politics mixed with social and cultural conservatism morphed into a potent mix of power and paranoia. Was this the genesis of the general lack of political engagement in art and the trope “art and politics don’t mix”?  Were there forces at work setting out to make art non-political? Was this wave of paranoia so powerful that we are not able to connect to the spirit of past innovations?

I am happy to report that many in my generation have re-engaged in the public conversation. Playwrights Tony Kushner, Emily Mann, Anna Deavere Smith, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks, Moisés Kaufman, Lynn Nottage and others consistently place their dramas within the context of larger social issues. And currently there is an exciting new generation of playwrights, many of them African American, who are dismantling conventions and making theater with a thrilling sense of political engagement and experimentation, while boldly resisting the dominant culture. This is a generation of artists who recognize that there is no contradiction between political engagement and aesthetic experimentation, including Branden Jacob-Jenkins, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jeremy O. Harris, Antoinette Nwandu, Aleshea Harris and Jordan Cooper. In the midst of this racial reckoning, we can see that political engagement is precisely what the theater does most effectively, bringing salient issues into the realm of public and popular debate.