Is Our Art as Polarized as Our Times?

messages-image2202097196On the day after the second presidential debate, I have a confession: I’ve seen Hamilton twice. The absurdity of this does not elude me, nor can I pretend it’s the consequence of anything except immense luck and indulgent parents.

I saw Hamilton for the first time in November 2015, just a few days after the ISIL attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis killed 130 people. The violence spurred international fear and revived discussions of banning Syrian refugees from seeking asylum in the US. Though the audience interrupted iconic lines with applause, their rowdiness forced the actors to pause only once: when an overwhelming number of theatre-goers stood after Lafayette’s proclamation, “Immigrants, we get the job done.” The applause seemed like a sturdy conviction and an affirmation — a group understanding that, even in the wake of tragedy and in the clutches of fear, we cannot allow xenophobia to run rampant through a nation built by immigrants.

The second time I saw the show was early August of this year, the same day President Obama implored Republican leaders to withdraw their support from Trump after his Islamophobic and misogynistic attacks on the parents of a fallen US soldier. There were far fewer interruptions for applause in the theater that day, perhaps because the audience sensed that many of the show’s strongest messages — about the complexity of governing, about education, about immigrants and race, and about honor — hadn’t resonated through our society enough to prevent the major party nomination of a man who disdains so much of what Miranda’s show celebrates. A man whose foreign policy platform is to “build a huge wall.”

Yet by the end of the show, the audience was on its feet, carried away by the brilliance of the show and the Founding Fathers themselves (not to mention the strong women in the background of the founding story). Was this just the “liberal, intellectual,” New York-centric Broadway crowd that Neil Patrick Harris skewered in his 2011 Tony’s opener, “Broadway, It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore?” Or was it a broader cross-section of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, many of whom had traveled to New York just to witness this pop-culture moment ? It is undeniable that Miranda’s musical has transcended a typical theater audience, as lyrics from the show and jokes about King George have worked their way into the vernacular. But perhaps popularity doesn’t extend to a willingness to grapple with Miranda’s underlying messages. If music today isn’t expected to be wrought with meaning, why struggle to discern it?  

In November 2014, The New York Times published an article titled “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?” The piece argues that historically, in times of great strife, artists have risen to the challenge of creating work that helps their communities make sense of the upheaval around them: “Intentionally or not, artists in every form and style draw on and refashion the facts of life that surround them, and the resulting work takes its place among those facts.” Think of the anti-war message inherent in Picasso’s Guernica, or the gritty depiction of the Dust Bowl in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or the social critique underlying Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” This art reflected hardship and helped shape aspirations, and it wasn’t niche. Average citizens found themselves in the books, movies, and songs detailing their challenges, and this art helped them understand themselves and their complex times more fully.

We live in challenging times now, too. And I often wonder whether we are capable of creating art that measures up to those challenges and – even if we are – whether we are willing to pay attention to what this art has to say.

Here’s where I come down: there is no shortage of meaningful art trying to make sense of the confusing world around us. Kendrick Lamar delves into race relations in To Pimp a Butterfly. Jeanette Walls explores poverty and mental illness in The Glass Castle. Amy Waldman considers the aftermath of 9/11 for Muslim Americans in The Submission. Chance the Rapper shows up on the cover of Complex (with Miranda, in fact), singing in Coloring Book about summer shootings in Chicago and The New Jim Crow forces its readers to consider the complexity and tragedy of the federal prison system. Our world is not lacking Steinbecks and Guthries.  

But what if it isn’t accessible? What if how we consume it is too superficial and too fragmented? What if we’ve become so politically polarized that we only engage with art that aligns with our world views? After all, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a sensation, it’s not a traditional commercial success when it comes down to radio-ready singles, nor did she intend it to be. It’s too political, too black, too aggressive, too something that’s just going to bother people. Many listeners would just rather not go there.

Still, I would like to think that the Hamilton phenomenon signals that we can share a common artistic experience that speaks to our common humanity. And yet, there are people who gave Miranda’s show a standing ovation and, almost exactly a month from today, will vote for Donald Trump.

Image courtesy of The New Yorker 

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