It’s an incendiary statement. Art is an instrument of war. I think some of this might connect to the complicated history we have here in the United States with art, specifically art as entertainment. The numbers don’t lie…we love us some art here in the good ‘ol US of A.

A small smattering from a recent survey conducted by Americans for the Arts. Check out their website to see all of their research and advocacy:

     1.) 63% of respondents said arts, “lift me up beyond everyday experiences”.

2.) 67% of respondents believe, “the arts unify our community regardless of age, race or ethnicity”. And…

3.) 90% believe, “arts should be taught in grades K-12”.

Americans, it seems, value art as something that not only contributes to society but uplifts, unifies and connects us together. And, because of that uplifted-ness in our perception of art, the phrase, art is an instrument of war may seem jarring or politically charged and perhaps that’s a good thing.

However we feel, individually and collectively about the purpose of art within society there’s no denying the power good art has to change hearts and minds. I think it’s this capacity to facilitate, nay, to bring about change that makes art so dangerous and so sacred.

Okay, Shelton. You’re talking about art as war, as dangerous, as sacred, as unifying, etc, etc, etc, you’re all over the map here.

Firstly…you have a point.

Secondly…let me try and focus in a bit more on some brief history. 🙂

If you will, let’s go back in time. Long before the capitalization and commoditization of artistic endeavor had reached its fullest fruition. Back to the time of the ancient Greeks. The goddess Athena Pallas was not only the goddess of warfare, but of wisdom, handicraft and the patron goddess of heroic endeavor. The Romans later assimilated aspects of Athena practice into their deity of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, strategic warfare, justice, the arts and medicine and some scholars posit that the Etruscan diety Menrva, the godess of war, art, wisdom and health, heavily influenced the later Roman deity.

The Buganda Kingdom in Africa was given Kibuka, the god of war and the younger brother of Mukasa, the Creator, to go before warriors into battle and ensure victory. In addition to the offering of sacrifices the army would sing and dance in reverence and celebration of Kibuka prior to battle.

Germanic and Norse mythology speaks of Wuotan or as is more common today, Odin, the “lord of frenzy” the god of wisdom, healing, war, poetry, etc. and in pre-Christian Ireland there is mention of Brigid, “the exalted one” who is associated with wisdom, poetry, healing and protection among other things.

The point being, for much of human history and across a wide variety of cultural and religious identities and practice there is a connection between the act of war and the act of art. They are an inter-woven and essential part of the human experience. Just look at the brief examples above. There is a sacred connection between the spiritual, between warfare, which in part is the survival, the growth, the continuation of your people, and art, the transmutation of your ideas, values, and the experiences you individually and collectively hold close to your heart.

Cool story, bro; what’s the point?

The point is that the arts are important. I would even argue ARE essential to society. “Theater is an act of faith, we get a bunch of strangers in a room, the lights go out and we dream the same dream together.” It’s this coming together, this transition of heart and mind and in many cases the soul that makes art so powerful and so essential.

There’s a reason when autocratic, totalitarian regimes come to power, they systematically begin to censor and | or eliminate artistic freedom. Think about the parts of our globe where autocratic governments reign. In each of those places, artists are imprisoned, tortured, exiled even sometimes killed. Why? Why do dictators go after artists? Why don’t they go after athletes?

I’d like to offer this. Because they understand the power of art. They understand that while athletic endeavors can bring us together collectively to cheer, and be united; it is the arts which can change hearts and minds. It’s the arts which can inspire hope in something more. It’s the arts which can bring a new perspective, a belief in a future that can be better then the present. For those of you familiar with the Broadway musical Les Miserables, the musical epilogue is a soaring testament to hope.

Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare,
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

Look up any of the playwrights of Theater of the Absurd. Look up the Brazilian artist Augusto Boal and his Theater of the Oppressed and Theater of the Invisible. Look up the African writer Chinua Achebe. Look up the work of and the volunteer opportunities with The Freedom Theatre, located in the Jenin Refugee Camp in Palestine or Prison Performing Arts based out of St. Louis, Missouri which focuses on teaching teamwork, discipline and creativity to inmates in and around St. Louis by working with the inmates to mount productions inside area prisons.

Here in Portland, the Portland Playhouse runs the Social Justice Theater Project,

Yes, theater art is and should be about entertainment AND its MORE then just that. It always has been.

Americans for the Arts conducted research between 1999 and 2016 which showed that students who take 4 years of arts in school score on average 93 points higher on SAT’s. Check out the graphic here.

As someone who has been working in educational theater for fourteen years, its time we stop polling people about how important art is and start collectively focusing our energies and our resources to not only providing art opportunities in school, but creating the infrastructure to enshrine art in ALL schools in the same way we do with math, science and…yes, athletics. Please understand I’m not saying art is more important then any of those other things, I’m saying it’s EQUALLY as important. If we stop treating art as an afterthought, at worst, or as a “bonus” option at best, we will radically change the world for the better. If we start viewing art as essential for everyone and not just a privilege for the wealthy, we will bring about a more equitable and just society.

– Education matters. Athletics matter. Science, math, history, language, matter. Arts matter. Education shouldn’t be a pyramid in which we sacrifice a whole body, holistic approach for the sake of specific things we hold as more “valuable” then others. We shouldn’t be excited about successful STEM initiatives, we should be excited about successful STEAM initiatives.

Though not always intentional, art is war. Art is power.

…and come to think of it, maybe that’s why we work so hard in this country to relegate art to entertainment, to amusement, to diversion. Maybe more people then I realize truly believe art is power and that knowledge is scary. It’s uncomfortable. It’s revolutionary.

It’s easier to stay with the status quo. It’s easier to continue talking about how important and meaningful art is; how much it matters, without actually funding it. It’s easier to talk about it’s virtues while accepting the narrative that only the wealthy, only those in a certain income bracket or neighborhood or social-economic status should have access to art. Though statistically a student has less chance of becoming a professional athlete then they do having a successful arts career, perceptions hold that pursuit of athletic success is more “worthy” then pursuit of artistic success. It’s easier to believe art is all about “talent” you either have it or you don’t because then we can skirt the conversation about funding and access all together. It’s easier to complain about prices for art experiences, [Broadway ticket prices, downloaded songs, etc.] then to self-reflect why we’re complaining about having to pay for someone else’s work, time and creativity. Why it’s okay to pay a lawyer $200 dollars and hour to draft some documents, but “a hard pill” to swallow to pay an artist to design a business logo? Or why it’s sometimes offensive when an artist has a social or political opinion you don’t want to consume.

…and now that I say that, maybe that’s some of the challenge as well. As a society we are used to art as entertainment, art as consumption…and for many, art, like food should be comfortable, palatable…consumable.

So when we shy away from art, whether by ignorance or fear of its power; and through unconcern or purposeful intend relegate art to entertainment and consumption, we uphold the status quo. We tell our children that the ability to bring people together, to experience different perspectives, to find hope, laughter, joy, delight, to maybe have your soul touched in a way that changes hearts and minds isn’t valued. When we try and figure out ways to access art for free, or uphold company policy that an artist should “create” the art before we decide if we are going to pay for it or not, we’re telling our children we don’t value creativity, professionalism or inspiration if it can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet.

There is a better way.

Art teaches us about bold love. Dan B. Allender says, “Bold love is courageously setting aside our personal agenda to move humbly into the world of others with their well-being in view, willing to risk further pain in our souls in order to be an aroma of life to some and an aroma of death to others.”

Art is war; and that doesn’t have to mean violence and death and destruction. It’s a war against our lesser selves. It’s a war against, intolerance, and inequality. It’s a war against a status quo that causes harm. It’s a war supporting, heart, mind, soul, community, history, purpose, ideas and values.

As I’ve said before, art won’t solve all of the world’s issues. It will remind us, why solving them matters.

There is a better way.

Enter to learn, leave to serve.