Sunday, June 28, 2015

Art at the Center of History - Symbols and Sounds

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………."

Friday was an emotional day for America.

First the historical Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage across the land.  And second, President Obama's moving eulogy for Clementa Pinckney and the other eight murdered South Carolinians.

Watching these events unfold, I was struck by the reality that, in both cases, art was at the center.

There are many factors - in the long struggle for marriage equality - that led to a victory this week - dating back, to at least, Stonewall.  On stages and movie and television screens, in song and dance and the written word, Gays were increasingly depicted, over the period, as normal.  Perhaps the single biggest factor in this victory was that the visibility of the struggle gave courage to tens of thousands in the LGBT community - famous and anonymous - to brave the times by increasingly coming out of the closet and declaring pride in who they are.  And as more and more stepped forward, it became more personal to millions of Americans.  It was the coming out that gave a face to a previously invisible populace.  Gays, Lesbians and Transgender people turned out to be brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, neighbors, friends and colleagues - and that recognition made it harder to deny them equal rights and cloak them in the shadows of invisibility.  And it made it easier for blocs of straight people to rally to the equality cause.  Gays turned out to be remarkably like everyone else.  And what they wanted was what everyone else already had.

AIDS played a role in all this too, as an unjust, merciless killer garnered for the Gay community, first contempt, and later not just sympathy, but respect for how the community mobilized and moved to protect and care for its own.  ACT Up taught gays not to be doormats.

And at every juncture was art.  Few memorials have had a more powerful impact than the AIDS Quilt - a work of art that enveloped the community and provided solace and hope in a dark hour.  The Rainbow Flag became the international symbol of the struggle of the community's fight for equality.  It was a rallying point and a banner; it provided shelter and a sense of belonging.  It proclaimed that the sacrifices of those who were, for their whole lives, relegated to the closet, were not in vain; that the time was coming when these people were going to stand up for themselves - and in so doing, like other groups before them, were standing up for the rights of everyone.

On Friday night, that flag - that piece of art - was replicated in a lighted White House exterior in an extraordinary recognition of the power of art as symbol of sanctity and safety.  A performance piece if you will of untold dimension.

The art of sound and music - which always plays a part in movements of humanity towards a better world - was present too, as the crowds on the steps of the Supreme Court spontaneously burst into a singing of the National Anthem.

That same afternoon, President Obama went to South Carolina to deliver a eulogy for South Carolina pastor and Senator, Clementa Pinckney, in an attempt to comfort and console the grieving relatives, the city of Charleston, and the nation.  And in another of Friday's extraordinary moments, the President boldly led the congregation in a chorus of Amazing Grace.  Most of us are far too shy and hesitant to even consider attempting a public solo a cappella rendition of any song.  The President's bold move was rewarded by those in the audience joining him in song; a visual reminder that while it's hard to go it alone, it's not so hard when you aren't alone; that music unites us and transcends our isolation.  Sometimes it just takes a leader to lead.

Not since Bill Clinton played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show have I seen a U.S. President engaged in a public display of art.  This was more profound.  I was overjoyed.

The art of the Pride Flag and the singing of a beloved hymn are, of course, while embracing a position,  neutral, in themselves.  As the Pride flag was elevated, the Confederate Battle flag was, last week, denigrated; for what it had become: a symbol of the cruel inhumanity of slavery.  And last week, the horrific death of those in Charleston, demanded that decency prevail and that that symbol be removed.

The point is how powerful art can be - whether used to build bridges or to tear them down.  And powerful, even if most people never think of it that way; never realize it.  And because people often don't recognize the role art plays in both the big and small moments of their lives, we need to remind them.

Absorbing the media coverage of these two events, I was struck by something else, and that was that despite the struggle for marriage equality taking decades to finally succeed, and despite the decades of resistance to recognizing the harm and pain caused by display of the Confederate Battle Flag - these decisive changes happened not so much in dribs and drabs, but all at once.  The overwhelming feeling in the Gay community was like my own:  I never thought I would see the marriage right accorded to Gays in my lifetime. I suspect many Black Americans might have similarly resigned themselves to the presence of the Confederate flag as an omnipresent insult.  But in a moment things had changed. Once the tipping point is upon you, it becomes an unstoppable avalanche.

And that I think is a lesson of hope for us in the arts.  For while it seems that we are forever relegated, like Sisyphus to push the rock that is public value, up that mountain, only to have it roll back down to the bottom - the victory we seek will be built on our relentless and continuing effort, bit by bit.  When it comes, it may surprise us all and come very quickly.   Though we can't see the tipping point, let us hope its close.   One thing I am sure of: art will continue to be near the center of the big moments in the nation's life.

And for that reason,

Don't Quit


Have a great week America.