Humor & Social Change: An Introduction

Posted by Joanna Chin On December - 2 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

When I talk to friends who are not in the arts, or show them my creative work, the most common response by far is some variation on: I could never do that. I’m not artistic. I’m so not creative. Which, of course, cannot be true. Mostly because my career is predicated on the belief that participation and access to the arts and creative outlets are both a human right and also a basic need. However, when I hang out with my friend who does stand up or anyone with a talent for the perfectly timed punch line, I empathize with my (so-called) non-artistic friends. In the same way that Michelangelo’s work was deemed mysteriously divine, so comedy has this unattainable quality to it (divine comedy, anyone?) that makes its power to poke fun and change perception equally hard to pin down. Although I think of comedy and art in parallel, in many of the circumstances where humor is used for social commentary and as an agent of change, humor also IS a form of art.

Animating Democracy’s December blog salon seeks to explore how artists, comedians, and other cultural commentators employ humor in the heavy work of social justice. As articulated by Dr. Nancy Goldman in her Animating Democracy trend paper about the role of humor in the work of social change, comedy – from satire to parody to slapstick – has a long history of calling attention to and commenting on the ways in which we live in the world together, socially and politically. From the days of Old Comedy in ancient Greece, and for centuries since, humor has provided a largely acceptable means by which to hold ideologies up to the light for inspection and critique. Join us as our bloggers apply their wit and irreverence to fundamental questions associated with this work: How does humor work?  When is humor a strategic choice and toward what social effects? What are examples of projects that have applied the power of “funny” to take up difficult issues and seen positive social change?  What is over the line?

You’ll hear from the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising Jamil Khoury, whose post unpacks how humor contributes to success measured in the “parallels and knowing moments;” political cartoonist Liza Donnelly on being a culture sponge; artist and co-founder/director of Fulana Marlène Ramírez-Cancio’s examination of satire as a tool for “protest with punchline;” comedian Negin Farsad  as she explains how dick jokes will change the world, and many more.

Sharing Shifts in Evaluation from the Funder Exchange

Posted by Joanna Chin On September - 6 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

A May 22 Funder Exchange on Evaluating Arts & Social Impact, presented by Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy program and hosted by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, brought together 32 funders, evaluation professionals, and arts practitioners to learn about concrete approaches and measures funders use to understand the impact of arts and social change investments. We heard case studies are using from Crossroads Fund in Chicago about its Social Movements Development model, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation about its use of Developmental Evaluation, as well as from the Fledgling Fund and Porch Light Initiative, part of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.

At least within this group, evaluation is no longer viewed as a necessary evil, or worse, an empty exercise. Funders and practitioners alike shared examples of shifts in thinking about evaluation toward:

  • Frameworks that identify shared goals and clarify how grantees’ work aligns with larger values and social movements
  • Cross-sector indicators and tools that help stakeholders understand what difference is occurring as a result of their work
  • Iterative learning that moves future efforts toward more effective practices and greater potential for impact

There was a general consensus that if funders were more deliberate in communicating with each other about common interests, intentions, and results, their collective impact could be better understood and perhaps expanded. The need to embrace experimentation and even failure was also broadly supported. Participants valued the in-depth exchange with peers this day afforded and recommended that Animating Democracy organize additional convenings to extend the learning around new cases. Read the rest of this entry »

Then and Now: Arts Practice and the Civic Rights Movement

Posted by Barbara Schaffer Bacon On August - 28 - 2013
Barbara Schaffer Bacon

Barbara Schaffer Bacon

As the nation commemorates the 1963 March on Washington, Americans will be reminded of the power the arts bring to movements for human rights. The music and singing that day played a critical role in inspiring, mobilizing, and giving voice to the civil rights movement. ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,’’ said Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘‘they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours’’. [1]

Theater also played a critical role. The Free Southern Theater (FST), was formed in 1963, same year as the March on Washington, to be a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement—“a theater for those who have no theater.” The FST “used art to support the Civil Rights Movement through a professional touring company, a community engagement program and training opportunities for local people interested in writing, performing and producing theater.” The FST was a major influence in the Black Theatre Movement, using theater “as an instrument to stimulate the development of critical and reflective thought among Black people in the South.” FST Artistic Director, John O’Neal, was a co-founder and a guiding force throughout the organization’s existence. Americans for the Arts has been privileged to learn from and support John O’Neal and Junebug Productions as part of our Animating Democracy Lab for the Color Line Project.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wrapping up the Arts & Military Blog Salon

Posted by Joanna Chin On May - 17 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

Throughout this week the overriding question has been: why do we use the arts in this complex space where individual and community health, veterans, and the military intersect?

On day 1, the resounding answer was that the arts promote the health and wellness of our veterans and active duty members. Two experts in the creative arts therapy field, NICoE Healing Arts Program Coordinator Melissa Walker and Semper Sound Military Program Director Rebecca Vaudreuil, made science-based arguments for the place of art-making and music in opening up channels of communication and guiding service members down the path towards healing. Susan Rockefeller’s experience documenting Nell Bryden’s band as they played for troops serving in Iraq gave anecdotal evidence of the impact that music can have on those thousands of miles from home.

As part of a natural progression from individual health to community wellbeing, on day 2, bloggers spoke to the power of the arts to aid in community reintegration. Punctuated by beautiful writing from the Veterans Writing Project, blog posts by Combat Paper Project founder Drew Cameron and Executive Director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts John Schratwieser asserted the need for everyone and particularly, artists/arts administrators as bedrocks of their community, to engage in the work of re-connecting veterans to home.

Looking at the intersection of the arts and the military from a global perspective, day 3 explored how culture plays a significant role in the success of missions and military communities abroad. From David Diamond’s observations of theater on military bases to two posts by General Nolen Bivens and American University Professor Dr. Robert Albro, we saw a shared acknowledgment of art and culture’s importance to the military (both in protecting cultural assets and, also, as a tool for creating and maintaining social and political stability), as well as diverse viewpoints on the challenges associated with this work. Read the rest of this entry »

A Collective Representation of the American Experience of War

Posted by Matt Mitchell On May - 17 - 2013
Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell

Since the spring of 2005 I have been working on a project entitled “100 Faces of War Experience: Portraits and Words of Americans Who Served in Iraq and Afghanistan”. In some ways this work can be seen as a memorial, yet it differs from a traditional memorial in a key aspect. Most, if not all, American war memorials are built around an official representation of the American experience of war or a vision of that experience decided upon beforehand by an artist. The 100 Faces project is, instead, an experiment in self representation by people who gone from America into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When complete the 100 Faces project will consist of one hundred painted portraits of, and statements by, Americans who have gone to the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The paintings are done in a traditional portrait style and show the person’s head and shoulders at life size. Each painting is started from life in a meeting between the artist and the person pictured.

The statements that accompany each portrait are the place where self representation enters the picture. These statements are chosen by the person pictured and are not edited or censored. Every effort is made to make sure that the participants in the project know they have complete freedom of speech. The only restrictions on these statements are that they be no more than 250 words and that each person must make their statement in some way different from all of those that have come before them.  In this way the project becomes more than a series of individual accounts, it becomes a complex collective narrative of the American experience of these wars. Even though all of the portraits and statements look independent when hanging on the wall, the entire group is meant to be kept together as a single unit in order to preserve this narrative.

You can see the on line exhibition by clicking here. Read the rest of this entry »

Public Art and the Military

Posted by Ann Wykell On May - 17 - 2013
Ann Wykell

Ann Wykell

As art consultant to The Patterson Foundation (TPF) in Sarasota, FL, I manage the commissions of public art for the assembly space in Sarasota National Cemetery.  The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery Administration, builds and administers 131 national cemeteries in the US. TPF an endowed charitable foundation and is fully funding the design and construction of the ceremonial amphitheater called Patriot Plaza, as a gift to the VA to honor the military ties of the family whose fortune endowed the Foundation. The theme of Patriot Plaza is Honor Veterans, Inspire Patriotism, and Embrace Freedom.

To select artists we followed best-practices for public art process, as defined by the Public Art Network of Americans for the Arts. However working within a military space has implications that are not typically encountered when placing art in public spaces. It is impossible to make meaningful art about the military without encountering the historical, political, art-historical and personal context. Typical questions for a public art project took on nuances and complexities: Who is our audience? What is this space used for? A national cemetery is a place where active duty military killed in the line of duty are buried, and where men and women whose honorable service took place decades earlier choose to be interred. It also provides burial space for eligible family members of veterans. Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s the Voice of Guantánamo?

Posted by Liz Sevcenko On May - 17 - 2013
Liz Sevcenko

Liz Sevcenko

“I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late,” wrote hunger striker Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel in his 11th year of detention. Our eyes have looked away before:  twenty years ago this month, another group staged a hunger strike to bring attention to their indefinite detention at GTMO. They were Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the United States, first rescued at sea and then held in makeshift tent cities behind barbed wire while their cases were considered. In 1993, the hunger strike drew international attention.  After an intense legal battle supported by a strong social movement, in June a US district court judge “closed Guantánamo.” So why is it still open?

GTMO has over a century of history before 9-11. It’s been used and reused to contain a whole variety of perceived threats, from communism to communicable disease. While the Haitian camps were closed in 1993, the government’s right to hold people at GTMO indefinitely was ultimately upheld – allowing “Gitmo” as we know it to open just a few years later.

But for many military families, GTMO has never been forgotten. “My most vivid memories of Guantánamo was everything just being free down there,” says Anita Lewis Isom, whose father was stationed there in the early 1960s. “I would give anything to be able to go back.”

How can Guantánamo represent both freedom and confinement? What can we learn from this contradiction? Read the rest of this entry »

Memorializing and Commemorating Military Service through Art

Posted by Joanna Chin On May - 17 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

In the past half-century, the mechanisms for remembering and honoring service members have been evolving: from statues of proud figures gazing off into the distance to approaches that are more multi-faceted, process-oriented, and democratic.

A natural continuation of yesterday’s look at artists working to enrich the public narrative around the military and war, today we dive a little deeper into the question of how the arts are contributing to and changing the way that we memorialize and commemorate those that have served. As evidenced by today’s bloggers, the public art and museums of today are placing less emphasis on permanent structures and the values that the military as an institution lives by and aspires to (e.g., valor, loyalty, discipline) and focusing on enabling multiple voices to form a collective, realistic narrative of their experience. Check back later on today for posts from Ann Wykell, the art consultant managing commission of public art for the assembly space in Sarasota National Cemetery; artist Matt Mitchell; and Director of the Guantánamo Memory Project, Liz Ševčenko as we bring the Arts & the Military Blog Salon to a close.

Writing Plays about the Military

Posted by Tammy Ryan On May - 16 - 2013
Tammy Ryan

Tammy Ryan

“Every artist worth a damn in this country was terribly opposed to that war….We formed sort of a laser beam of protest.  Every painter, every writer, every stand-up comedian, every composer, every novelist, every poet aimed in the same direction. Afterwards, the power of this incredible new weapon dissipated. Now it’s like a banana cream pie three feet in diameter dropped from a stepladder four feet high…”     

-  Kurt Vonnegut http://progressive.org/mag_intv0603

It’s been over forty years since the Vietnam War, the time of protests in the streets underscored by the visceral antiwar response that erupted from artists in the 60s and 70s. Now at the end of a decade of war, critics have complained about the dearth of new American plays about Iraq and Afghanistan, but it isn’t because they aren’t being written. Many American playwrights have been taking this subject on since the first Gulf War and while war stories still feel very much part of the male mythology grab bag, women playwrights, such as Naomi Wallace, Karen Malpede, Arlene Hutton, E. M. Lewis,  Andrea Stolowitz, Jami Brandli, Caridad Svich, and many others are writing plays that dig into this grab bag in personal and political ways.

Given the climate for politically minded plays in this country, I asked myself as I was about to write a play about rape in the military: why would I do it? Plays take a long time to research, write and get produced.  I was looking at a commitment of three to five years maybe longer and I had a number of roadblocks, not the least of which was the fact that I knew next to nothing about what it was like to be a woman in the military. What do I have to say – and maybe more importantly what good does it do? Given the coterie nature of the theater in this country, we often feel like we’re preaching to the choir.  Read the rest of this entry »

Jaeson Parsons

Jaeson Parsons

The cultural chasm separating the civilian and the warfighter has never been wider. Most of the conflicts in 20th Century American history have relied on conscription, better known as the draft, to fill the ranks of our armed forces. The Global War on Terror of the 21st Century has been and continues to be fought by an all-volunteer force and because of this, the gap continues to grow as more and more professional soldiers shoulder the weight of a decade of conflict.

The typical soldier joins the military right out of high school, most have never lived outside of the town they grew up in and even fewer have visited another country. These men and women are just out of childhood when they join the military and many of them have fired a weapon in combat multiple times before their first drink in a bar at age 21. The military culture is all they know of adult life and once they are separated from this family of sorts, the civilian world is as alien to them as the sands of Iraq were when their boots first hit the ground. After multiple years in combat, witnessing man’s inhumanity to man, they are forever changed and trying to relate to their generational civilian counterparts is almost mission impossible. This is the divide, the cultural gap that separates those who have witnessed the horrors of combat firsthand and those who have simply watched the events unfold on CNN. We, as a nation, must construct a bridge over this divide to bring together this fractured generation and not let yet another war separate so many of our military heroes from their civilian brothers and sisters. Art, in its many forms, can be that bridge we so desperately need and art is what inspired our project, the Graffiti of War, which aims to bridge the divide and join our nation together like never before. Read the rest of this entry »

Tragedies Help Communities Heal from Timeless Wounds

Posted by Bryan Doerries On May - 16 - 2013
Bryan Doerries

Bryan Doerries

One of the first people to speak after a Theater of War performance was a perfectly kempt military spouse with blonde hair, striking blue eyes, and a soft, unassuming voice. She leaned into the microphone, took in the crowd of nearly 400 Marines and their spouses seated shoulder-to-shoulder in a dimly lit Hyatt Regency Ballroom in San Diego, cleared her throat, and said: “I am the proud mother of a Marine, and the wife of a Navy Seal. My husband went away four times to war, and each time—like Ajax—he came back dragging invisible bodies into our house. The war came home with him. And to quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’”

The Marines all held their breath, as if kicked in the gut with a steel-toed boot. In the back, a small group congregated around a cash bar, nursing Budweisers, staring at the floor and waiting out the silence. In the far back, there was even a dinner buffet, though no one seemed in the mood for eating.

Those Marines who had elected to attend the reading of scenes from Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes, or as one Marine called it, our “little skit,” had been attending a conference in August of 2008 on Combat Operational Stress Control, the Marine Corps’ way of referring to post-traumatic stress without pathologizing it. They had freely chosen ancient Greek dinner theater over tickets to a San Diego Padres game, and many of them had brought their spouses and girlfriends to the performance. The bar and buffet certainly helped draw the crowd, as did the presence of several well known actors, including Jesse Eisenberg and David Strathairn, but no one who showed up that night had any idea of what was about to happen.

Many of the Marines came expecting to see a fully staged reenactment of the 300 Spartans bravely standing down the Persian Army at the Battle of Thermopylae, featuring hack-and-slash swordplay and pyrotechnics. But when they discovered four actors in their street clothes sitting at a long table in front of microphones, wielding scripts instead of battle-axes or spears, many of them were visibly disappointed. Read the rest of this entry »

Enriching the Public Narrative

Posted by Joanna Chin On May - 16 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

On the website for the Combat Paper Project, founder Drew Cameron (who issued a brilliant call to action in our blog salon on Tuesday) is quoted:

 The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reshaping that association of subordination, of warfare and service, into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.

Today’s topic gets at the heart of why the arts are and have the potential to be so effective in this intersecting space with the military. Whether contributing to national interests abroad or supporting service members here in the U.S., artists are core to changing and enriching the public narrative around the military, war, and service members. Today’s bloggers will speak to the ways that artists from within and outside the military are creating art that impacts the public narrative about the politics of war and military culture, and the effects on those actively engaged as well as those left behind.

Up until this point in this salon, we’ve talked about the connection between the arts and the military as something new and ground-breaking. However, in his post later on today, Artistic Director of Outside the Wire, Bryan Doerries places the company’s innovative Theater of War Production within the context of storytelling and a history that stretches back to the ancient Greek tragedies. Picking up on this thread of connectivity – between past and present; military and civilian – Graffiti of War Project founder, Jaeson Parsons articulates that “art, in its many forms, can be that bridge we so desperately need” for this generation. On the civilian side, Tammy Ryan, having never experienced war firsthand, provides some insight into the forces that drive us as artists to create work that gives voice to an issue, sparks conversation, and contributes to larger social and policy change.

Cultural Diplomacy and Heritage Wars

Posted by Dr. Robert Albro On May - 15 - 2013
Dr. Robert Albro

Dr. Robert Albro

Over the past two decades cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has become an increasingly evident – and fraught – subject of foreign affairs. One reason is a recent proliferation of multilateral conventions by UNESCO, among others, more specifically articulating international frameworks for the protection and conservation of cultural heritage globally. These include the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the 2005 Diversity Convention, and the 2008 ratification by the U.S. of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, among other precedents. New collaborations between cultural professionals and the U.S. military, in the context of this increasing attention to heritage, constitute non-traditional opportunities for cultural diplomacy.

One effect of the recent push for international normative frameworks governing the conduct of persons, communities, and states with respect to heritage has been to identifiably constitute “cultural heritage” as a kind of scarce local or national resource, as a well-defined potential subject of state action, and as a basis of international relations and of conflict. Tracking this trend, some historians have referred to the contemporary onset of “heritage crusades,” which can lead to “heritage wars.” In other words, attitudes about cultural heritage have changed over time, and international actors increasingly seek legal redress, or take violent steps, in relation to an increasingly prevailing conception of heritage as: rivalrous, non-renewable, specific in time and place, and exclusively owned by people, communities, or nations.

Not coincidentally, the potential destruction of cultural heritage has become a major preoccupation, not only for particular communities and nation-states, but also for the U.S. military. Recent history is replete with multiple examples of the destruction of heritage sites or objects in active conflict zones, or leading to conflict. A short list would include the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the 2003 looting of the Baghdad Museum, the devastation of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the destruction of Timbuktu’s sacred tombs during the conflict in Mali, and ongoing heritage loss as part of the conflict in Syria, among others. Heritage destruction, looting, and the illegal antiquities trade are one front in these heritage wars. Conflicting claims, the definition of heritage as property, and calls for repatriation, are another front. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Arts and Military Can Help Cultural Diplomacy

Posted by Brigadier General Nolen Bivens, U.S. Army Ret. On May - 15 - 2013
Brigadier General Nolen Bivens, U.S. Army, Ret.

Brigadier General Nolen Bivens, U.S. Army, Ret.

The conditions have been set and it’s now time to use the arts and cultural engagement at ground and grassroots level to further enhance cultural diplomacy and effectiveness of military security cooperation operations.

The model for military operations has six phases. The recent withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq and the goal of drawing down troops in Afghanistan beginning in July of this year, returns the focus of U.S. Military leadership to preparing for the future and the point in its operational phasing model known as Phase Zero – shaping the environment.

In the 12 years since beginning combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, joint U.S. Military Forces, other governmental and non-governmental organizations, and coalition members have demonstrated unprecedented courage, sacrifice and even creativity to protect national interest in the Middle East region.

Realizing that a key component to success during these operations is winning the hearts and minds of the people, they also learned how vital and necessary the “whole of government” approach is during all phases of military operations; that is, integrating activity across the whole of society – the political, military, economic, social, infrastructure and information components.

Examples include bringing the curatorial skills of the Archaeological Institute of America, Iraq’s Cultural Ministry and U.S. Army Reserve soldiers to address the ransacking of Iraq’s museums and archeological sites by looters and insurgents.  For those not familiar with the story, in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, “Mobs of treasure hunters” tore into “Iraqi archaeological sites, stealing urns, statues, vases and cuneiform tablets that dated back 3,000 years and more to Babylon” according to some archaeologists. From a nongovernmental perspective, Greg Mortenson, author of “Stones into Schools” built 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan – an effort that did not go unnoticed by four-star U.S. military commanders. His 2006 book “Three Cups of Tea” was “required reading for all Special Forces soldiers deploying to Afghanistan.” Read the rest of this entry »

Soldiers on Stage

Posted by David Diamond On May - 15 - 2013
David Diamond

David Diamond

First of all, who knew that there were theatre companies on US Army bases? Who knew they had annual one-act play and full-length play competitions? Who knew that working as a mentor to the directors of those plays existed as a job?

My supervisor, Jim Sohre, recently retired as Chief, Entertainment (Music and Theatre) Program, U.S. Army Europe, created the Mentoring Program in 1995: I started the concept when we got actor, director (and personality!) Charles Nelson Reilly here to judge our Army Europe One Act Play Festival in Heidelberg.  He not only critiqued, he got right up on stage and re-worked scenes with the groups.  So it was more a working Masters Class.

I began working as a Mentor Director for the same Festival. This involved traveling from base-to-base throughout Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey and Northern Italy. There are about 20 bases that participate in the annual competition; I visited 14 of them. As Jim explains, Well, first, by bringing in mentors/judges from the US we are able to get top notch industry professionals who can provide contemporary input and training that is not available here in the English language.”

Each base I visited has a theatre company that regularly presents plays and musicals for the residents of the base. These companies include not only soldiers, but their families, other military personnel, non-military base workers, etc. Since the funding for the theatre companies and their facilities is at the discretion of the base commander, they operate under wildly different conditions. In Stuttgart, you have an entire performing arts complex with theatres, rehearsal spaces, everything state-of-the-art; in Grafenwoehr, plays are presented in a corner of a former basketball court using only clip lights and a boom box for tech. Still, it is remarkable what they are able to produce. Read the rest of this entry »