Letter from the Editor

On the Power of Art and Challenging Cultural Inequity

Courtesy of the author’s Facebook page.

Art is a my path to freedom, emancipation and equity. While many people proclaim to understand the power of art, I think few understand the role of art in challenging structures of systemic injustice—the power of art in transforming the imagination, and in building true, lasting social change. Art and its mom, Culture, surround us all the time. They inform that way we connect to each other, the way we identify, the values we form as societies. The art and culture that consistently envelops us —from the visual imagery in the streets and in galleries, to the stories we see enacted in movies, to the books we read to our children—is informed by the same systemic inequities and ideas that we experience and witness in our day-to-day lives. Art has the ability to solidify dominant ideologies, or to transform them entirely.

Art IS power. Culture is power, and the current arts ecosystem mirrors the rampant economic and racial inequity we see in our schools and communities. From art school faculty, to art critics, to museum boards, to gallery owners, to art award jurors—the art world is #hellawhite. And so by extension, there is necessarily a bias and a perspective embedded in the very work that emerges from this ecosystem, and it continues and will continue to exclude, invisibilize, and otherize.

And because art and culture shape the way we think, the output of our current arts ecosystem is contributing to the very culture ideas most of wish to discard: the culture of rape, the culture of white supremacy, the culture that believes in the punishment and incarceration of the perceived “other.” Consider the way Reagan created a cultural narrative that systematized and codified a practice of locking up millions of Black and Latino men over minor drug offenses. Think about the “War on Drugs” commercials, the D.A.R.E. program in schools, the TV shows in the 80s that criminalized people of color (not to mention the way that television and movies continue to typecast people of color when they bother to cast them at all).

Those who tell the most powerful stories, those who create and share truth-filled emotional, bold content will win

On a more empowering note, consider how cultural works such as the daytime television show Ellen, the play The Laramie Project, and Act Up’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” campaign helped shape a twenty year period where being queer and deserving of full human rights became normal, eventually leading to marriage equality in the Supreme Court. Those who tell the most powerful stories, those who create and share truth-filled emotional, bold content will win. Because, as this election made clear, people are more moved by their emotions than they are by facts.

Art and culture have always shaped policy. Why else would Reagan have gutted the National Endowment for the Arts during his tenure? Why have all of history’s most repressive governments gone after the arts aggressively? In order to genuinely tap into the power of art as a catalyst for social change, we must not only consider the WHAT of the artistic object, but also HOW it came to be and WHO was involved in its creation, as well as WHOSE perspective it reflects. This is how we will recognize, challenge and ultimately dismantle the white supremacy that still dominates our world and the art ecosystem as we know it. Because when we are able to include the stories, the experiences, and the perspectives of people of color, women, immigrants, and queer folks, our world becomes more inclusive, more open, and more loving. We will hear stories that humanize, that complicate ingrained biases, and that ultimately inspire you to advocate for the humanity of a person who might be very different from you.

Access to and participation in arts and culture are both human rights, and for too long, only a few perspectives have sat at the table, century after century

When I create work and engage in creative projects—whether it’s working with migrant folks in detention centers or consulting about a national arts strategy—I think deeply about cultural equity: the idea that people of color, women and queer folk must have access to representation, power, and visibility in the massive powerful goddess that is Art. Not only are inclusionary and complex narratives, beliefs and images needed in order to challenge outdated ideologies and to shift culture in favor of those at the margins, but we also must build systems that allow these voices to enter in the first place. For this to happen, we must radically reimagine the institutions that have held power in the arts for so long. And yes, we will need a lot white folks to let go of their power, in order for it to be distributed equally among all of us, especially in the arts. Art is supposed to be a language of freedom, of universality, and of inclusion. Access to and participation in arts and culture are both human rights, and for too long, only a few perspectives have sat at the table, century after century.

I feel that we are in a moment here, where we must use the same critical analysis employed when talking about police brutality against Black people, the same critical analysis with which we talk about mass incarceration and rape culture. It’s time that we understand that a grossly unequal arts world is only perpetuating ideologies that contribute to our disempowerment.

Enough. I believe it’s time to stand up to the white supremacy that is rampant in the art world. The political times require us to be bold, unapologetic, and truthful about cultural power.

Art for me has always been a way for me to find my own voice. It is how I have made sense of the world and told my story on my own terms. When I was first aware of how people saw me, art became a strategy for me to escape and challenge the institutions of sexism and racism that surrounded me. Through art, I found the power to tell stories about people like me, to humanize people who are relegated to the margins, to complicate and challenge the old and tired tropes we see about people of color over and over again in mainstream media.

How do we challenge cultural inequity? By creating and celebrating art and culture that humanizes, complicates, and connects

This “Momentum” issue will attempt to tell those stories—of artists who haven’t been fully represented as the whole, complicated people they are, of the diverse set of infrastructures created to benefit one group to the detriment of another, and of the people working to create a world that is governed by the power of ideas, not the bank account or political connections of the people behind them.

How do we challenge cultural inequity? How do we develop practices that are more inclusionary? How do we expand the way we think, assess, and value art so that we also consider questions of cultural equity? How do we change this ecosystem that is not catching up to the demands of our time? By creating and celebrating art and culture that humanizes, complicates, and connects.


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