During times of national or global urgency, artists become bellwethers—many redirecting their energies in an attempt to respond to, or at least make sense of, political and social upheaval. From dancer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s recent solo work Once, a stirring examination of American militarism set to the Vietnam-era music of Joan Baez, to theater artist Richard Maxwell’s rumination on today’s culture of fear in The End of Reality to Green Day’s overt polemic American Idiot, many artists today are struggling with ways that their creative work relates to their concerns about the direction their community, nation, and world are taking. As Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither says, most artists are tremendously wary of what choreographer Bill T. Jones calls “toxic certainty”—an unswerving belief that one is right, whether in art or politics—even if it is in the service of political beliefs they hold dear. “While they avoid the type of didacticism that can so weaken artistic work,” Bither says, “we count on artists to ask the provocative questions that others seem unable or unwilling to address, and today they are responding in full.”
This month, two artists visit the Walker with works that raise such questions and traverse the delicate line between aesthetics and persuasion, criticism and patriotism. Jones’ dance work Blind Date parses the nuances of concepts such as freedom and national identity, and poet/spoken word artist Sekou Sundiata’s music-theater piece the 51st (dream) state examines the rupture between the political realities in the United States and the country’s guiding myths and metaphors. Both works arose from similar impulses: frustration at political attacks on the American ideals they hold dear. Although he objects to the political positions of the right and is openly critical of the current administration, Jones proudly notes that “America is a very complicated place and, quite frankly, I don’t think I could be the artist I am if I was in another country. I am an American artist.” Blind Date is his response to those who wish to restrict the freedoms on which this country was built.
For Sundiata, it was the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center in his native New York—or, rather, a visit to Ground Zero shortly afterwards—that spawned the thinking behind the 51st (dream) state. On that site, he says, he felt a deep connection to his country, but in a way that had little to do with flags or the proclamations of New York’s mayor. “I have never been interested in patriotism,” he admits. “I am interested in a citizenship of conscience and in critical citizenship. These ideas emphasize a moral, ethical, and critical relationship to the state above a prideful and supportive one. The first proposes a kind of uncritical blindness; the other proposes a look at America that does not flinch or blink.”
But what does that mean? As a lifelong activist, Sundiata has fought in many sociopolitical battles, but upon reflection, he realized that “in that process of being oppositional to many of the things going on, somehow I had lost a sense of what it meant for me to be an American in some fundamental way.” To reconnect with America—and “America”—he set out on cross-country trips, hosting citizenship dinners and communal singing events. And wherever he went, he recorded people of all stripes as they discussed everything from foreign policy to their hopes (and fears) for the future. Appearing in the 51st (dream) state as video projections, these individuals present a raw and authentic view of America, not flag-draped myths and triumphal metaphors.
Jones, too, features ordinary people in his work through the experiences of his dancers. During each rehearsal for Blind Date, he added group dialogue to the regimen of stretching and movement exercises. “Most of them are young and apolitical,” says Jones. “I ask them, as dancers and not as political theorists or anything other than who they are, ‘What do you think is the relationship between what you do and the present discourse?’” The resulting work includes personal moments with dancers, including a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” sung by Mexican-born Eric Montes while doing a handstand, and a recollection by Asil Bulbul on a patriotic symbol that became a tool for intimidation: bullies on her grade-school playground in Turkey threatened violence against kids who wouldn’t sing the national anthem on demand. Moments like these seem to bring specificity and humanity to ideas that, like patriotism, are so often just generalized, hard-to-grasp ideals.
While the works exude anger at times, they’re also optimistic, about both America and the power of art. When asked if he is a patriot, Jones notes, “Yes, I guess I am a patriot, if a patriot is someone who cares deeply about the society he is a product of and wants to give something back.“ Sundiata believes that art and the practice of democracy are both creative, imaginative processes instead of closed, static systems. He uses Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s term “imaginative identification” to discuss how both require us to confront differences and put ourselves in someone else’s place. “When we encounter a work of art, things are not only unfolding before us. They are happening to us. When the hero falls, we fall. When the hero triumphs, we triumph,” Sundiata says. “This, to me, is the special agency of Art.” By honoring the concerns of fellow citizens, the artists present an alternative view, a potent counterbalance to “toxic certainty” and “uncritical blindness.”
Do artists have a responsibility to engage with these issues? Jones says only if they must, and he knows no other way to live his personal or artistic life: “I think artists would do themselves and us all a great service if they looked more closely at where the urgency is in their lives.” And, in that regard, the personal is political. Sundiata, who thinks of his work primarily as an “aesthetic argument or conversation,” welcomes the audience into this process. But, despite the hot-button nature of the issues he’s grappling with, persuasion isn’t his aim. “I do want audiences to become engaged in the argument. I want them to choose sides, sometimes many sides,” he says. “I want them to make some choices, with the exception of the deadly choice of neutrality or indifference.”