Art and Activism
Art and Activism
By: Michelle Ang, 2012 YoungArts Winner in Spoken Theater and U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts
Damian Woetzel walked into the room with a seemingly calm exterior, but as the minutes progressed, it was clear that he was bubbling with some sort of frantic energy. He introduced himself to us, and we began to talk about Martha Graham's famous letter: "There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action..." I cannot help but think how Mr. Woetzel, at that moment in the middle of answering a question and gesturing wildly with his hands, seems to perfectly embody those famous words. Next we touched on John Cage and his love affair with everyday noise, and I am reminded of how artists tend to perceive the entire spectrum of life, from the extraordinarily beautiful to the mundane. I was very pleased that the Chinese artist and activist, Ai Wei Wei, was included in our discussion, as I felt it gave the class an international dimension, as well as an example for using art as a vehicle for change and social justice.
The master class was, in my mind, a huge success. Mr.Woetzel said that it was his first class, and so in this fact, I like to think he learned from us Scholars as well. Participating in this class was inspiring, and also revelatory for me, because I discovered something. Talking about the role of the artist in society, and specifically on Ai Wei Wei, I began to wonder if I could take my passion for art beyond the stage and into the world. Mr.Woetzel talked about his latest project in China with Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma, and as I listened to him speak, the idea of using art for activism started to take hold of me.
I always have quietly nurtured a dream of starting a theater company devoted to rearing and producing the works of ethnic playwrights, but from the master class on, I entertained dreams of running a film company dedicated to showcasing stories from the farthest corners of the earth, of an organization that would spread arts education across our borders and beyond. Granted, I still entertain them, just perhaps on a smaller scale. Theater is, essentially, storytelling. I believe in its healing and restorative powers, I have seen it work on various people, and have often experienced it myself. There is much potential for good here, for the chance to reveal a new aspect of our existence. All art has the power to spur a revolution, but art can also help repair damages and shed light on global problems.
Lynn Nottage traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought back stories that would ultimately produce her play, Ruined. On a similar note, Eve Ensler wove together stories from her experiences with Bosnian war refugees to create her play, Necessary Targets. I find myself repeatedly thinking: If these women are making a change by doing what they love to do, why can't I?
The next day, the Presidential Scholars were all asked to speak at a forum led by Mr.Woetzel. Talking about arts policy and the role of museums in modern society was interesting, but I really enjoyed hearing the other Scholars talk about why their art means so much to them. Some of them shared why they chose to pursue it, some of them described the powerful feelings and experiences they had while performing, and at the end of the forum, although we did not reach a concrete solution to drawing more teenagers to museums, there was a sense of accomplishment, a certain warmth, and a general contentment.
After the forum, I discussed these thoughts with some of the other Scholars. The topic of arts education was fresh on our minds, and someone brought up the topic of "Americans for the Arts," a non-profit organization headed by Robert L. Lynch. I was eager to talk about this organization because it also has been a great inspiration for me, and I hope to spread the word about their aims when I enter college in the fall, as well as possibly work for them someday. After most of the talk had died down, we sat on the floor signing journals, sad that our wonderful experience was drawing to a close, but collectively grateful for everything YoungArts and the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program has given us.
There is one quote Mr.Woetzel gave us in particular that sticks out in my mind; the notion that genius is just a reservoir of rejected thoughts. This idea is exciting for me because it implies that everyone has the potential to become "a genius" so long as one can find the courage to follow one's thoughts...and translate it into action.
Thanks to one master class, I am on my way to doing just that.