Tuesday Feb 7th, 2017
On Comfort, On Authenticity
By Alicia Lai
Photo by Gesi Schilling
“Art only happens when something is being pushed against.”
“Art is a political stance, a form of testimonial.”
“How do you score [the music of] American history—the beautiful and the ugly?”
Up to this year, 2017, we had chosen for our art to be good, and angry, and in love, and controversial almost as an aesthetic choice. But this year, 2017, there was a shift in sentiment that we were unaccustomed to, a feeling that we’d been cut loose to go in any direction, and that everything we created could and would be used for, or against, everything we held dear. Art as a vehicle for change was mentioned again and again at National YoungArts Week in Miami; teachers and winners alike testified to the responsibility of art as an opportunity for transformation.
As young artists, by definition, you’re young, pretty, the world loves you, and it’s daunting and lonely. But the beautiful thing about YoungArts Week is in the reflectivity of the environment. Master teachers showed the students what artists were and what they themselves could be. Artists met a hundred others who were too authentic, and original. Photographers assigned to Little Haiti were to find themselves mirrored in the cradle of the past: the limping shopkeeper, the marbles by the highway, the roosters preening in the dirt—and the best pictures weren’t made by looking for something foreign, but by transcending the seductive allure of exoticism and making it their own.
And this circle, this YoungArts family of alumni and teachers—how accepted I felt, how loved we all did. Regardless of who they were in the outside world, everyone insisted that we call them by first name: it was “Jason”, not “Mr. Moran”; “Jessica”, not “Ms. Lang”; “Sylvia”, not “Mrs. Plachy”—because once we made that decision into art—and we all had—we were peers.
A defining moment of the week for me was at Bill T. Jones’ masterclass for the winners in dance, where he pointedly ignored the high folding chair placed on stage for him, pacing and speaking with a frankness few of us are lucky enough to ever encounter. He made us all think—about how brazen we were, how true we were supposed to be, how a three-year old has a more authentic self than any of us in that room. He insisted that perfection didn’t exist in the world, only in the mind: if a rose is beautiful, he told us, and it dies—does that beauty disappear with it? A gay, black, openly HIV-positive artist who broke barriers in the 1970s and 80s, Bill had old eyes and a gravitas that no one could question. “Artists that say, ‘I think everybody should be able to do it,’”—Bill said, meaning the art—“do you really trust the people that much?” The art he liked, it wasn’t exclusive; you just had to have seen things. Then again, Bill was a world-renowned director and dancer, recipient of a National Medal of Art from the White House, so yes, you could easily attach the word “elitist” to his definition—but I don’t think it was that. This art simply wasn’t supposed to be comfortable; it wasn’t supposed to be beautiful or easy to live. I remembered back in 2014, I had worked on a show he was directing at the Kennedy Center, where he insisted that I write and deliver performance poetry in front of the Department of Education criticizing, admiring, loving, hating the very American education system that had put us there on stage.
So let’s talk about political art. Art can be for protest; art can be for change. This is what they told the Design finalists—to find the difference between art in movement and in performance, versus art in a corner in an exhibition. A week later, we gathered to watch: a boy who unfolded his picket sign into a makeshift tent and pillow, a girl who dragged weights through the audience and literally broke out of her paper cocoon onstage. There was a lot of love that evening. In every other artistic discipline, too, I found artists pushing the boundaries: dances choreographed to an Audrey Hepburn acceptance speech; writing to fill the solitary space; a saxophone and piano duet matched in time to Chet Baker’s voice on loop.
Photo by Gesi Schilling
There was a complexity, and a simplicity, to it all—as the writers put it, “Part of what allows you to have a voice is to actually being able to hear your own voice.” And all of a sudden we could.