The Aesthetics of Politics, Art, and Communications

Posted by Nato Thompson On November - 18 - 2014
Nato Thompson

Nato Thompson

When we begin to wrap our heads around the fact that culture-making surrounds us on a daily basis, and that everyday people are now both consumers and producers of symbolic production, we can then more accurately approach the question of aesthetics and politics, and begin to see how it operates around us daily.

The question of aesthetics and politics is certainly not new. It has been both a productive and destructive line of inquiry throughout much of the 20th century, much debated between Bertolt Brecht and Theodore Adorno, and the Constructivists and social realists of the Russian Revolution. It sat at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, was rife throughout 2nd wave feminism, was a central concern of the Zapatistas revolution, and was prominent in so many other social movements. It is a question that is as clumsy as it is urgent. It is neither new nor resolved.

This is all to say: if the topic of aesthetics and politics gives you a headache, find odd comfort knowing that you are not historically alone. Read the rest of this entry »

Laughing Together

Posted by Justin Krebs On December - 5 - 2013
Justin Krebs

Justin Krebs

Comedy can play a number of roles in promoting political change. First, many people will be open to comedy in a way they won’t be to a political speech. We turn off political ads, while turning on funny online videos all the time. Second, the best performers with a knack for manipulating nuance and crafting memorable lines have the ability to communicate about progressive ideas more clearly and powerfully than many elected officials. A third feature is the endurance of mockery. When you raise your voice at an opponent in a political argument, you can seem shrill or out of control. When you raise laughter at your opponent, the effect of making him or her the butt of your joke can stay with an audience — or a voter — for a long time. Fourth, there is the power of surprise. A good punch line catches you off-guard, just as a good argument may push someone out of an entrenched stance.

But there is another power of comedy — just as important as its ability to surprise, persuade or attack: comedy’s power to unite, give those who laugh together the sense that they belong to something larger together.

I have had the pleasure of seeing this play out through the work of Laughing Liberally, the national comedy enterprise that promotes democracy one laugh at a time.  Laughing Liberally comedians have toured the country, local Laughing Liberally Labs have sprung up in over a dozen cities, and our team has worked with non-profit and advocacy partners to mix the power of humor into their creative campaigns, communications strategies, and online initiatives.

I didn’t start Laughing Liberally (with comedian Katie Halper, innovator David Alpert, and others from the Living Liberally family) because I had a team of comedians that needed a title, but the other way around: I had an audience that needed to be inspired. Read the rest of this entry »

Humor Me Some Social Change

Posted by Jamil Khoury On December - 5 - 2013
Jamil Khoury

Jamil Khoury

My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the political utility of art. Too general. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the diplomatic efficacy of theatre. Too ambiguous. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the dialectics of storytelling and social change. Too academic. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the empathic functions of humor. Whatever.

Now that I’ve introduced myself, and established my “scholarly” credentials, how about indulging me a few terrorist attacks?  Specifically, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.That Mother of all Terrorist Attacks. Gut-busting, sidesplitting, rip-roaring funny, right? Not even remotely. But a catalyst. And a damn good one. When me and my husband, Malik Gillani, set out to create Silk Road Rising, we envisioned a theatre company that could articulate a “proactive, artistic response” to 9/11. Our destiny was to become 9/11 second responders, responding both to the hatred and fanaticism that fueled the attacks and to the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Brown people backlash that quickly ensued. First Al Qaeda hijacked Islam, then public anger hijacked our citizenship.

From the get-go, our activist logic maintained that although our work would be serious and political, humor would be an integral ingredient, the fermenter of provocative ideas. The plays we’d produce would employ humor as a point of clarity and connection. Not to make light of a situation, but to deepen our understanding of it. Which means the humor would be organic to the stories we’d tell, neither gratuitous nor diversionary. A company birthed in trauma cries out for empathy, and empathy manifests viscerally. We knew instinctively that the laughter that transcends barriers is the substance of social change. Unpacking a clash of ignorance masquerading as a “Clash of Civilizations” demands irony and satire and parody and sarcasm.  For when the world gets divided into monolithic, historically fossilized, spatially demarcated “civilizations” forever at war with each other, it’s time to call in the humorists! Read the rest of this entry »

Humor is Hope

Posted by Ellen Callas On December - 4 - 2013
Ellen Callas

Ellen Callas

At the San Francisco Mime Troupe, we have been using humor as a method of presenting serious socio/political topics to our audiences for over 54 years. Our intent is to engage and activate them and offer a sense of solidarity with their fellow viewers. It’s not a new concept.

Broadly drawn, easily recognizable characters are the basis of all forms of Popular Theater from Ancient Greece to the Commedia dell’arte of Renaissance Italy to American Melodrama. Be it Kabuki or Jatra, the basic archetypes are present onstage, demonstrating the commonality of humanity’s struggle with itself. The lines are easily drawn; heroes and villains, bosses and workers, landlords and tenants all evidence of the ongoing class struggle that is our collective history. It was (and is) humor that allowed the servants to laugh publicly at their masters as they were often portrayed onstage as vain and idiotic. It was a liberation of their spirit as audiences delighted in the undoing of the patricians at the hands of a clever underling.

Whether we are tackling GMO’s, corporate personhood, workers rights, C.I.A. backed wars or oil companies, our methodology is the same. Like Mary Poppins’ “spoonful of sugar,” we have found that facts and evidence stick with folks if the information is delivered through physical comedy and witty songs. People who might routinely disagree with our point of view are more receptive to alternative ideas when laughing. Often the humor acts as a time release pill of realization when an audience member sees in real life what we illustrated onstage.

Our call for activism is usually manifested onstage by our “every person” character, who is typically called upon to make a conscious choice between their own self interest and the common good. Often that character’s sense of disempowerment mirrors that of the audience. In “Social Work”, Sharon Lockwood played Phoebe, an overworked social worker whose ability to help her clients was hamstrung by budget cuts.  Driven by frustration, she dons a disguise and as The Lady in Red,   and in a comic Grand Guignol eliminates her foils in elaborate murders. Clearly we were not advocating murder, but the over-the-top style provided a catharsis for the audience as they cheered Phoebe on.  Often audience members recognize themselves onstage in a way that might affect their choices in the future, as in the portrayal of the disillusioned and disengaged activist. Humor can provide a wake-up call. Read the rest of this entry »

Comedy as a Tantrum of Truth

Posted by Lee Camp On December - 4 - 2013
Lee Camp

Lee Camp

I’ve been making my 4-minute comedic political rant videos twice a week for close to 3 years. They’re called “Moment of Clarity,” and there are now 280 of them online as well as a book by the same name. (I’ve also been a full-time stand-up comedian for 15 years.) While I could go on for hours about the use of comedy to affect change, I want to talk about one specific area where I feel my comedy is successful at informing people.

As most of us know it’s largely not “cool” for America’s youth to care about the world – and by “youth” I mean anyone under 30 and sometimes up to 40. The cooler attitude nowadays is apathy or ironic detachment. Comedy, music, and some other art forms have a unique ability to get past the wall of ironic detachment that blankets the younger people in our culture. Most of this population would never listen to a speech by Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges, but they might watch one of my comedy videos about that speech and forward it to a friend. Freud talked about using humor to mask true intent or meaning, and in that way I am able to somewhat mask the desire to educate and inform. I don’t mean to say that it’s not evident, but when something is funny, the education factor is not as front and center. Humor can be a backdoor into people’s brains, and once that door is open, I just have to hope that the seed of information I leave one day blossoms into a full-on tantrum of truth. …Wait, can a seed grow into a tantrum? Perhaps I should’ve said “Rhododendron of truth?”

The Arts: Making a Difference at the DNC

Posted by Robert Lynch On September - 7 - 2012

Bob Lynch at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa.

The Convention Halls are creative chaos. The streets are jammed with animated participants holding placards, engaged in heated dialogue and performing all kinds of issue-based street theater. The scent of policy is in the air. And it’s just the way I like it.

Here at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the role of the arts is alive and well. What you see on TV is only part of what happens. Inside, actual policy is being discussed—not just broad themes, not just ideas, but approaches that will actually have an impact on lives and on communities.

I am here talking to these very political leaders about the value of the arts and arts education in American society, and I simply have to ask them to look out the window for them to get the point. My US Airways Magazine told the story clearly on my way in, ticking off dozens of cultural destinations awaiting convention delegates.

During our ArtsSpeak panel discussion in Charlotte on the future of arts and arts education in America, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright spoke about cultural diplomacy, a critical foreign policy tool. She also noted how the arts helped shape international political dialogue both formally through U.S.-sponsored jazz and dance and other art forms, and informally by every day actions.

On a personal level, Secretary Albright—famous for her collection of handcrafted brooches—told the story of how she would wear them as subtle symbols of mood or maybe a hint at national policy intent. For example, she wore a serpent pin when meeting with Saddam Hussein. It also turns out that she is a pretty good drummer—and goes by the nickname “Sticks.”

The discussion also showcased how the arts have proven to be so far-reaching. Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley discussed the need for continued focus on national education policies that would steer local and state decision-makers to enhance and support expanded art and music education in the local curriculum. The only state-level cabinet member in the country dedicated to arts and culture, Secretary Linda Carlisle of North Carolina, highlighted how cultural tourism is a huge job creator. Read the rest of this entry »

The Supreme Court’s Healthcare Decision & The Arts

Posted by Narric Rome On June - 29 - 2012

Narric Rome

In 2007, the Americans for the Arts Action Fund put together a policy agenda for the 15 presidential candidates to consider as they built their policy platforms. Among arts policy items was a call to “encourage initiatives that provide healthcare coverage to arts organizations and individual artists.”

By early 2008, after meeting with campaign staff and putting questions before the candidates themselves in early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa, the Clinton and Obama campaigns both published policy statements in support of this effort.

The Clinton campaign stated, “Hillary knows that many artists, who are self-employed or work part-time at another job to support their full-time career as artists, do not have access to employer-based coverage.” And the Obama campaign statement said, “Since many artists work independently or have non-traditional employment relations, employer-based coverage is unavailable and individual policies are financially out of reach.”

In 2009, with a new president sworn in, Americans for the Arts, along with 85 other national arts organizations, presented an issue brief for Arts Advocacy Day that called on the new Congress to “ensure that national healthcare insurance reform proposals include artists and other creative occupations currently excluded from employer-based insurance plans.”

At the heart of the matter was the fact that artists were (and are) disproportionately self-employed (about 60 percent work independently), and those who are not often work multiple jobs in volatile, episodic patterns. According to a 2010 study by Leveraging Investments in Creativity, “artists are twice as likely as the general population (11 percent vs. 5 percent) to purchase their own health insurance, and at much higher costs.” Read the rest of this entry »

Gladstone Payton

Anxiety is already building on what promises to be a historic (for mostly all the wrong reasons) lame duck session of Congress after this year’s 2012 national elections in November. This session could possibly have a dramatic affect on the nonprofit arts sector.

Because all the seats in the U.S. House, and one-third of the Senate will be on the ballot November 6, there is very little motivation from either party to find a compromise in advance of election day. With control of the White House hanging in the balance, the political stability that follows an election appears to be the safest time for these issues of substance to be addressed, albeit in a very compressed timeframe.

What is the big deal?

It has many names: “Taxmageddon”; “Legislative Apocalypse” and others; you get the idea. The country is on schedule to see large tax cuts first put in place by President Bush, and then extended by President Obama, expire and huge cuts in government spending basically happen at the end of this year. This means that a tremendous shortfall for the national economy at large. Currently, the Congressional Budget Office estimates are that over $600 billion will be taken out of the still precarious economic recovery by the end of 2013.

How did we get here?

Last summer, President Obama agreed to House Republican demands to cut the burgeoning national deficit in order to increase the national debt limit ceiling to avoid default on our debt obligations. The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) put into place a bipartisan “supercommittee.” Charged with finding how to cut $1.2 trillion promised in the BCA, they failed (miserably) to reach agreement which will trigger deep automatic cuts of 8.4 percent (sequestration) to most social and defense programs as agreed to in the BCA starting 2013.

Adding to the anxiety is the status of the so-called “Bush Tax Cuts” and the payroll tax cut which are set to expire at the end of this year. By letting the tax cuts lapse, the marginal rates for just about every American are scheduled to increase and employees will see less in their paychecks. Combined with the previously mentioned spending cuts, you get a dramatic shortfall. This will spur a lot of talk about reforming the tax code and cutting additional spending, and it could affect the arts sector in a number of ways. Read the rest of this entry »

Community-Based & Creative Strategies for Local Waterfront Revitalization

Posted by Anusha Venkataraman On November - 8 - 2011

Anusha Vankataraman

Artists and creative organizations are becoming increasingly more engaged in what is the traditional terrain of urban planners and local politicians—from local neighborhood planning, to revitalization projects, and even real estate development.

Engagement of the creative community in local planning issues not only increases the relevance of and helps to create broader bases of support for artists and arts organizations; it also ensures that the city planning policies enacted are sustainable, responsive to community needs, and perhaps more effective in the long-run.

One area of urban politics and economic development that is being tackled by creative institutions and local artists is waterfront revitalization. Because of the large public and institutional investments needed to accomplish projects of this magnitude, waterfront revitalization has typically been a city government-led effort.

However, in the face of limited public resources, citizens, grassroots organizations, and local institutions are taking the lead in re-imagining how their rivers and waterways can be used. This form of city re-development is more socially and environmentally just, equitably shared, and creatively implemented. Read the rest of this entry »

Justin Knabb

While the recession may be officially over, its effects are still lingering throughout the economies of cities and towns across the nation. Congress, the White House, and governors (who want to be in Congress or the White House) constantly steal the headlines with ways they are going to save the people, and the government, money.

However, mayors are also being forced to deal with budget shortages, proposing municipal budgets that tap previously untouched sources of revenue: nonprofits.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel offered the bluntest statement regarding the need for nonprofits to provide more tax revenue to the city. In remarks given to a group of arts advocates at the Goodman Theatre, Emanuel said, “Nobody is in a sacrifice-free zone. I love you all. You’re really important. But you’re not more important than anybody else.’’

Emanuel, who indicated during the mayoral campaign that he would start billing nonprofits for their water usage, backtracked on an implication that he would remove property tax exemptions for such groups.  Read the rest of this entry »