Thursday, December 8, 2016

"What Will Be Different?": Who do I stand with?

It has been a month since the US presidential election and--as we watch the president-elect steadily arm himself for assault on every aspect of our society's progress, any hope that our democracy might be a true guiding light in the world--many of us continue to struggle to process, on mental, emotional, even visceral levels, just what has happened.

Last Monday, New York Live Arts opened its doors for a gathering, Open Spectrum: What Will Be Different?, conceived by marketing consultant Brian Tate and curated by Tate and NYLA's Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong in alliance with MAPP International.

The forum examined issues of concern to women, a demographic with complex effects upon the course of this election. Program notes set forth the following questions:
The election is over. Now the future awaits, and the lives of women--of us all--will be transformed. What shifts of policy and culture can we expect for women under President Donald J. Trump? How should we respond as citizens to advance the cause of justice and equal opportunity for women from today forward? To meet that challenge, how will we ourselves change?
[I take full responsibility for that strikeout, by the way.]

Tate noted three other questions to guide each of as we each find our best response to the challenge of this time:
What do I stand for?
Who do I stand with?
What am I ready to do?
It was the second question that interested me most as I looked around the studio and noted the striking predominance of white women of professional/upscale appearance. And although there were some dance artists in attendance, this apparently was not an event with much draw for the dance community. Although the excellent panel featured notable performing artists (Adrienne Truscott, Susana Cook), cultural scholars and critics (Catharine R. Stimpson, Margo Jefferson) and Brooklyn Museum chair and arts activist Elizabeth A. Sackler along with human rights activist Rana Abdelhamid in a venue historically grounded in the art of dance, it was fascinating that the crucial role of the arts and of artists scarcely came up for consideration.

Cook's experience of growing up under military dictatorship in Argentina offered insight into how the unacceptable gradually transforms itself into the norm. It would have been good to hear more about how Argentinian artists, forced to work under the radar, managed to carry on their struggle. Jefferson--one of the panel's most searching speakers--cited King Lear:
The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
And yet what hung over the room was a sense of shock, grief and apprehension still so raw that perhaps everyone, artists included, are still figuring out how to balance that weight and how to shape feelings into effective action.

The question was raised: Who are our models for responsible civic engagement? From the perspective of the arts and artists, the answers called out were revealing: Cecile Richards, president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America; activist and scholar Angela Davis; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; filmmaker Ava DuVernay, my first choice; and Sylvia Rivera, the late trans-activist veteran of Stonewall, whose name was not familiar to most of the audience. I kept thinking, a downtown arts audience would know Rivera's name right away.

Who do we stand with?

Future Open Spectrum gatherings will address the post-election concerns of other demographic groups, including people with disabilities, Black youth and immigrants. For information, contact New York Live Arts here.

See the video of Open Spectrum: What Will Be Different? here.

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