What Can An Artist Contribute To A Polarized Political Climate?

I normally write something for the Huffington Post at least once a month, but I admit that even before the actual election, I began to have a bit of writer's block, which only intensified with the surprise outcome on November 8th. I wasn't sure whether to write about feeling heartbroken and angry, or to attempt to find some Kumbaya spirit and consider ways to bring everyone together using art and music as therapy. I am essentially an optimist, and in most everything I write, I attempt to find some element of hopefulness. I also pride myself on being someone who actually enjoys helping people to find common ground, and using my skills as a writer to negotiate opposing sides.

However. This is a toughie. My general practice when something upsets me is to let my mind untangle for a time until words come out that may make sense of my anger and frustration to me and hopefully to others. But especially after the election, the words just weren't coming. I couldn't find the sense in what happened, and I couldn't find the silver lining.

What started to form in my head instead was an idea about artists as communicators, and therefore influencers. All of the news stories about Russia have reminded me of a project I participated in when I was a child in the 1980's, during the height of the Cold War. It was a musical called "Peace Child" that was created in 1981 detailing the adventures of fictional Soviet and American children who meet and become friends. Frightened of the prospect of nuclear war, the children decide that if the kids from the two countries can become friends, they can bring their message of peace to the adults and politicians. The children eventually bring about a meeting of the political leaders of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, resulting in peace talks between the nations.

The musical itself began with real life American children performing throughout the United States, and then brought a tour with some of those children to the Soviet Union to perform the musical for Soviet audiences, and eventually became the first time Soviet children were allowed to travel to the United States as the very first youth cultural exchange between the two nations.

I performed roles in the musical many times throughout my childhood, and participated in one of the performances that featured Soviet children in San Francisco. The Soviet kids, despite being followed very closely by their K.G.B. agents, ran around, danced and sang with us American kids, and we all threw our arms around each other and made immediate friends - performing together creates deep bonds, no matter the circumstances. The "Peace Child" musical was performed over 5000 times in 31 countries, involving 250,000 children, and resulted in life imitating art when in 1986, after working with U.S. and Soviet administrations to create the first cultural exchange between Soviet and American youth, Mikhail Gorbachev invited the Peace Child foundation to work with his Green Cross organization to fight climate change. (info from the Peace Child International Website)

It was not only the news stories about Russia that made me think of "Peace Child" - it was the idea that something artistic that speaks to individuals can have a great impact on people, beyond just making a statement. The disconnect, fear, and lack of understanding between Americans and Soviets of the 1980's reminds me of the way the people perceive one another on either side of the political aisle in the United States right now. People are now so ensconced in their beliefs - they can, if they choose, watch, read and follow news and social media stories that only support what they believe, and therefore the other side of the political spectrum has become almost like another country with whom we are in a non-communicating war.

But art will always have the ability to transcend the cold. Just after the election I performed Handel's Messiah in Kansas City, Missouri. As I sat in front of the orchestra waiting for my solos and listening to the glorious music, I looked out at the faces of the audience members, who were nodding their heads, smiling, closing their eyes, and enjoying the music created by this long dead German guy, brought to life by people from within their community and those of us flown in from far and wide. I can guarantee you that there were people from across the political spectrum sitting in that audience, but we were all experiencing something together that connected us no matter our political opinions. Art will always be a form of communication that can be shared by people who may feel they have nothing else in common.

So back to my original question: What can artists contribute to a polarized political climate? Of course artists who are famous can and will use their fame to express their opinions and to fight against what they feel is unjust. But those of us who aren't famous and don't have that same platform have something to contribute as well: our ability to communicate with those we may not understand or feel connected to in other ways. If "Peace Child" could bring about the first youth cultural exchanges between two countries that faced the prospect of war, artists today must encourage the same exchanges between red states and blue states, who are seemingly at war with words and ideas and even to some degree cultural identity despite being in the same country.

I read today that the new administration has plans to completely defund the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm here to tell you that this must not happen. Our country is in a communication meltdown, and eliminating funding, and therefore support of the arts is not the answer. The arts may be one of the only pieces of glue that is holding us together with which we can still share and find common ground. We may disagree about almost everything, but we still all go out and see the same movies, listen to the same songs on the radio, and download the soundtrack to Hamilton. And the classical art forms that receive funding from the N.E.A. allow new works that influence and inspire everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to Lin Manuel Miranda. I'm serious: Miranda wouldn't have been able to come up with his genius libretto for Hamilton without the musicals that came before him, which wouldn't have existed without the operas and operettas that came before those, which have always found a way to delve into political issues while still transcending their arguments (Mozart and Da Ponte were deconstructing the relationships between royalty and servants a long time before Miranda was turning history on its head by repositioning a historical figure as a rap / hip-hop / musical theater icon).

I guess my conclusion is that our work as artists continues to be to make great art, and also to find ways to present that art to people who might think they are excluded from experiencing it. We should follow the lead of the San Francisco Gay Men's chorus who after the election cancelled their trip to Europe to instead started planning a tour of red states. We need to acknowledge that while arts and artists tend to propagate in cities and urban areas, the rural areas need access to our creations even if it means performing for an audience of 10 initially unwilling audience members. Artists are communicators and we need to use our skills with determination and focus, in order to make sure everyone understands our importance in every day life.

Okay, so maybe I did get a little bit Kumbaya with this one. But no more time for writer's block or complacency. Not from me, not from any of us. The fate of our projects and our institutions is both literally and figuratively in our hands, and we have the tools and the skills to bring the public to a new understanding, one individual at a time. The arts go past the rhetoric of the politicians and connect the actual people in a society with one another. That might seem lofty, but it's true throughout history, and it is our job to make sure it continues.