On October 30th, I journeyed to Washington D.C. to watch Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert satirize the state of American Politics. I laughed, exchanged meaningful glances, and thrilled at the enthusiasm of the crowd. But I left with a nagging feeling of irresolution that led me back to a question I often ask:
What does “political art” achieve?
Jon Stewart asked the same question in his final speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity, when he said “So ahh, what exactly was this? [Pause] I can’t control what people think this was.”
As Stuart suggested, art can call itself political, but not everyone will agree on what it is doing, or, if it is doing anything at all.
This question resurfaced again when I read about The Civilians’ new play “In the Footprint” in the NYTimes on Tuesday. The Civilians are a theatre company dedicated to investigating relevant political and social issues, using journalism as the foundation for their creative process. In the Footprint, their latest play, investigates the Atlantic Yards development project, which is sponsoring the construction of high-rises and a basketball stadium in downtown Brooklyn.
In the Footprint will undoubtably achieve two things: it will illuminate an issue relevant to New York residents because, as composer Michael Friedman notes, “daily life is affected by the mechanisms of this project we’re working on” and it will contribute another political history of the Atlantic Yards development project to the existing discourse, because, as former tenant Daniel Goldstein put it, “this play will be the citizen history of what happened.”
Thus, the Rally to Restore Sanity and In the Footprint are artistic investigations of a contemporary political struggle that will educate audiences about the issues (to a degree) and create a historical record of the political issues being discussed. But will they provoke action? Or will they merely present audiences with information, make them feel as though they have done something by listening and understanding the issues, and thereby reinforce political passivity?
I would argue (not having seen In the Footprint) that Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and The Civilian’s In the Footprint both initiate thoughtful dialogue about contemporary political issues, but do they ignite action? Is that their place or duty? Does the entertainment value of political art degrade the political message being delivered?
Ready, set, debate!
Rosie duPont BC ’10