In defense of art in a time of fear: The increasing purpose of art in today’s political climate

There’s a quote that, among people who love the arts, gets passed around when something terrible happens. I first heard it during my sophomore year of high school, when news of the Boston Marathon bombing spread. It made its rounds on social media and was repeated by musicians at concerts for weeks. I heard it again in 2015, during the outrage over the killing of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore Police Department and again, a few months later, when a white man killed nine people in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. It came up again after the attacks in Paris and Beirut, then in Nice, now in London. It’s been deployed as a stance against war and terror and has been claimed as a mantra by musicians to justify their craft in a cruel world.

It’s a quote by Leonard Bernstein, delivered in remarks after a memorial concert for John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963: “This will be our reply to violence – to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before,” he said.

I thought about this quote a lot following the election of Donald Trump. I thought about how empty it had come to feel. Again, and again, as more and more terrible events have happened, artists have turned to this idea – that the simple act of making something beautiful could make the world a better place. And yet, after the Trump election, I struggled to see how we could continue to make art in a time of such fear. There had, after all, been a tide of violent hate crimes in the wake of Trump’s election, and his campaign had guaranteed continued violence with its platform of increased defense and militarization. He had run on a platform that targeted and victimized marginalized populations, that awakened and fueled hatred and that granted political legitimacy to a platform of white supremacy. What good is art in the face of an oppressor? Why should beauty matter in a time of cruelty?

As a musician, a performer and even a liberal arts student, I struggled to see how anything I could do would make a tangible difference. I could sit in a classroom and discuss Weber’s notion of state violence. We could talk about Benjamin’s theory of art in an age of mechanical production or discuss the philosophical underpinnings of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. I could play you a Beethoven sonata or, as Bernstein did at that memorial concert, perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. However, all of this seemed to be quite removed from the very concrete ways in which people, across the country and around the world, were suffering.

Indeed, artists will have to recognize the fact that the world faces problems that they, alone, cannot solve. The arts can’t stop a bullet from killing another person, nor can it end hunger or poverty. It’s going to take a coalition of people, from different backgrounds and disciplines, to come together to solve the problems we face.

As an act of individual expression, art can be a powerful weapon against cultural and political oppression. There is a reason that Plato wanted to banish the poets, that Stalin threatened and censored Soviet composers. Art, as an object of cultural thought, has power. After all, an oppressor will try to silence the people who will fight against their cruelty and who will demand a more free, humane society. In the face of oppression, we must be a part of the fight.

We must also recognize that being an artist is a privilege; it is not a privilege afforded to everyone. This is not to say that there aren’t people from marginalized populations making art – indeed, some of today’s most important art is being made by those who have been historically marginalized. This is to say that access to the arts is a often matter of socioeconomic privilege. Early exposure to the arts varies dramatically in public schools across the country. The ability to access concerts and museums is often available only to the affluent. The ability to make art is generally something reserved for people who have access to the quality education and training that being an artist can require.

Therefore, as artists and as people who believe in the power of the arts, we have a vital responsibility. We must give a voice to the otherwise voiceless. We must use our power to challenge oppression, to build strong and inclusive communities. We will make art in the name of justice and freedom because the world, and humanity, depends on it.

Leonard Bopp ’19 is from Albany, N.Y. He lives in Mark Hopkins.