After 'Hamilton's' Plea: What The U.S. Election Can Mean For The Arts

Opinion piece by Lane Harwell--November 20, 2016

Those of us who value the arts and arts education have our work cut out for us in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and the work is urgent.

The arts were not a meaningful part of either candidate's (or either party's) agenda. The candidates never once referred to the arts as an area of interest or considered the role of the arts to help to solve the many pressing issues facing our country, from improving the economy to addressing veteran integration and immigrant affairs.

The arts were also not a high priority for voters. The question about what the election means for the arts was set on the back burner, even for some colleagues who were active in the campaign while making a living working in the arts.

Despite various celebrity artist appearances and creative depictions of the nominees, there are too few well-known examples of artists stepping up to educate, challenge, and move Americans during the campaign. This was a missed opportunity, and I personally wish I had done more to mobilize the cultural workforce.

Reflecting back, I would posit a correlation between the country's inattention to the right to create and encounter art and the kinds of deep ideological divides that were revealed and hardened by the election. It is a mistake to overlook the arts' capacity to foster empathy and communicate across differences, just as it is a mistake to consider the arts as separate in any way from the issues that are shaping our world.

The arts can help make our country great and grow stronger together.

Looking ahead, I join a coalition of national arts organizations in endorsing a statement, Advancing the Arts to Support National Policy Priorities, which urges the new administration to embrace and nurture the arts and their potential to advance all federal policy priorities, both within and across federal agencies.

I also urge our artists to respond swiftly to the election through their work. Above all, I see a need for artistic content and experiences to unite Americans who were pitted against each other during the campaign and to counter forces of oppression--racism, sexism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia--that gained momentum. The arts and creative practices are uniquely positioned to tell the stories of our nation's diverse people; reaffirm the democratic values of liberty, equality, and justice; ignite robust and productive debate; and open hearts and minds to building an ever more inclusive society.

When it comes to expanding the role of the arts in federal policy, artists should not wait for the new administration. They need to make art now that engages the administration and the public and demonstrates how much the arts can contribute to the broad range of national economic and social goals: for instance, bettering education and youth development and enhancing health and wellness.

The cast of the Broadway hit "Hamilton's" plea to Vice President-elect Pence to "uphold our American values" has gone viral, drawing cheers from an enormous fan base and tweets of opposition from the President-elect. This is precisely the kind of intervention I am advocating for artists. Artists have a long tradition of drawing attention to important issues and cannot be silent, or silenced, now.

Finally, I encourage artists to seize opportunities for international touring and exchange. At a moment of shifting foreign policy and trade priorities, in this country and across the globe, such efforts could advance our international reputation and standing, while facilitating the open and truthful sharing of ideas for the greater good.

As an ally and believer in the arts, and in the power of artists to create much needed meaning now, I invite you to join me in supporting this work.