Defining the Role of the Arts in Dangerous Times


(Image: Street art in Lisbon, photographed by Maria Panichelli)

That we are living in times which are both insane and very dangerous can’t be disputed. That such times have occurred throughout human history is also indisputable.

As Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, I think it’s essential to examine the role we play, as an arts organization, in supporting artists and the arts at such a time. Our mission has always been to “serve the underserved artist”, and we’ve done our best to live up to that mission. There are so many kinds of underserved artists, however, that it feels overwhelming. Still, this mission seems even more important, during times when the budgets for arts funding are stretched to the limit, when grants for individual artists have all but disappeared across the United States, when other countries – most whose funding for the arts has far outstripped that in the U.S. – are also falling victim to neoliberalism, austerity and the winds of authoritarianism. Art is always under attack in such times, and this is no exception.

What also seems important in these times is to explore the kind of art we, at Hidden River, are supporting and promoting.

Diversity is increasingly important, both in the artists we support and in the art that we are helping to fund through our competitions, our live events, our publishing. A chorus of voices, a multiplicity of perspectives, a growing community willing to honor and celebrate each others’ differences – that is very much a part of what we hope to build. This is an area where I feel we still have a lot of work to do. We will be working harder than ever this year and onward to reach out to communities of artists both here in the U.S. and internationally, which are more racially and religiously diverse. It’s true to say that we have always tried to do that; it is also true that we need to try harder.

This autumn, I left my academic work in order to focus more of my time on Hidden River Arts and its programs. I did this for several reasons, all which constellate around the idea of hope. I left academia because I no longer have hope in the possibility of restoring American higher education by fighting from the inside. I plan to work as an educational activist now, standing outside the institution. I choose now to focus on my own creative work and on the important work we can do through Hidden River. That is where I feel an enormous amount of hope. As an individual, I have come to a crossroad, and I believe that Hidden River has come to its own crossroads as well.

On a personal level, I am no longer willing to allow useless negativity, victimhood or learned helplessness to exist in my life. That there is negativity, that people are victimized, and that feeling helpless or hopeless has become a kind of default state – all this is true. It’s actually a normal reaction to the abnormal conditions we find ourselves in. But I’ve personally lived weighed down by such negativity, with a sense of victimization and helplessness for too long. I know I’m not alone; I think that far too many of us have, in the last several decades, fallen into this kind of despairing state. There are some who would say that this is part of an intentional crushing of the human spirit that comes in times of great inequality and growing authoritarianism. So, as an individual artist, I want my work to stand in opposition to that which crushes the human spirit. That doesn’t mean that the negativity we observe and experience shouldn’t be addressed. Quite the contrary. What it means is that addressing the negatives is only part of what must be done. Seeing beyond them to the newer visions, to possibilities for rebirth, to the rebellious and the revolutionary – that is essential. Art is essential to rebellion and revolt as Chris Hedges says so beautifully. That’s why authoritarian governments work so hard to control it and to crush what can’t be controlled. Vercors believes that the very source of art is man’s revolt against his own ignorance, and his desire to create a universe over which he has some sovereignty.

And as Director of Hidden River, I want to rededicate our organization to that same goal: to stand against that which crushes the human spirit. We want to call forth rebirth, rebellion, and yes, even revolution.

What This Means for Artists

That means that we stand against that which crushes the artist. In this economy, that means the invisibility, the desperation and the struggle which are likely to be the realities of those wanting to live creative lives. This year, we are expanding our programs to offer more supports to artists: that includes interviews, craft discussions and reviews on this blog. It also means a brand new series of podcasts, online classes and an online interdisciplinary arts journal. We are going to be very busy.

We are also expanding our competitions, offering more awards and publication possibilities to writers in a variety of genres from literary fiction to historical fiction, to speculative fiction to YA. We are offering new playwrighting awards, poetry competitions and non-fiction competitions. We will also be offering awards to visual artists and musicians, filmmakers and animators . Our online journal will include all these genres, and will be published bi-annually. It’s about growing our community, providing platforms for artists to speak with each other, to discover and build their audiences, to create transformative networks.

We are growing our internship program, which is already robust, so that more students and interested beginners of all ages will be able to work with us, and will have opportunities to work with the many artists with whom we hope to be building community.

Hidden River Arts has never pursued grants or funding from organizations that would then claim the right to have oversight of our choices or our activities. We have only held one small fundraiser in our entire 20 year history. That will change this year, since the expansions will require that we hold some crowd-funding activities. But pursuing that kind of fundraising means that the power remains in the hands of the people who are members of our community, not in some hierarchical power structure to which we have to answer. It also means that the power to make their own kind of art lies within the purview of the artists themselves. Art by and for the people, not for the powers that fund.

For The Community

First of all, it means that we are looking to make our programs more accessible to the larger community. Out of financial desperation, there are arts organizations, theaters, performance venues and programs which are now “rebranding” themselves for exclusivity, charging exorbitant ticket prices to guarantee that the audience is filled with members of the 1%.

We will never turn ourselves into a luxury brand. We are here to provide, as best we can, for the 99%.

This restated focus means that we will do our best to make our programs available to as many people as possible. We have always offered free live arts events and readings, and will continue to do that. Our podcasts and craft discussions online will be available to everyone. So will our online journal. In other words, we stand against anything that crushes the spirit of our arts audience as well, or anything that would turn audience away for lack of funds.

It also means that we will be looking more actively for art that speaks to the human spirit and the social predicaments, the economic struggles, the issues of human rights. It does not mean that we will be looking for preach-y or pedantic work. Nothing crushes the spirit more than that! We want work that looks closely at the human experience, the social worlds within which we live, the governments, the economies, the power structures and how we can navigate our way through them, as individuals, as families, as societies — maintaining and acting through our many strengths.

We want art that presents truth while reminding people of their own power. We want the energy of the trickster to be alive and well. I was asked recently, “Do you want to be a victim or a trickster?” I think the answer should be obvious to all of us. We want artists and art to reflect the ways we can remain unvanquished, resilient, buoyant, rebellious, triumphant. That is our re-clarified mission at Hidden River Arts, and we hope that you will join us.

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