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The Role of the Arts in a Democratic Culture | Page 3

October 13, 2017: National Association of Schools of Art and Design

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.: President, Spelman College

Lesson # 2: Disrupting the Single Powerful Narrative

Many of what were considered alternative spaces in the  1970s, 1980s and 1990s  have since matured into influential cultural institutions. That maturation is one of the  great triumphs of an open society that has retained the resilience and fluency to shift hierarchies  and encourage change.  Critical to this fluidity has been the power of the arts to disrupt the single powerful narrative. When I was studying the history of art as a graduate student, women artists, artists of color were all but invisible in American museums and seldom mentioned in histories of American art.

It is unimaginable now to walk into the MoMA or the High Museum or the National Gallery of Art and not find women, Latino, African American, Asian, Native, Arab  American artists and other ethnicities under the category, American art. Where there had been a single powerful story of art history, there are now multiple narratives.  We know that we all have been bequeathed what the poet, Kevin Young would call, multiple inheritances.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, delivered a brilliant TED talk in 2009 entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story” that outlined the perils of relying on the Single Story. By the single story she means a dominant, incomplete narrative about a people, a culture or a set of events that is repeated over and over and flattens and simplifies a people or a culture in a way that distorts and deadens.  Adichie’s talk is meant to call attention to how this process of radical simplification robs us of knowing each other, of comprehending the rich complexity of each other’s histories and identities.  If we make of each other paper cut outs, silhouettes with no discernible individual features just interchangeable shapes and figures, we have de-humanized each other. 

If we de-humanize each other, we set the circumstances for us to become disposable to one another. In non-artistic terms, our disposability renders it possible for us to speak about building a wall, splitting families apart to depart the undocumented, tolerating police brutality and mass incarceration. Artistic expression is one form of complicating narratives that give us a greater sense of the depth and breadth of the citizens who make up our American communities and delivers to us insights about each other’s lives.

One of the most stunningly successful example of complicating a narrative comes from the theater and that was the collaboration between the biographer, Ronald Chernow and the theater artist, Lin Manuel-Miranda.  Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton’s recounts his life and his role as a founding father in establishing many of the institutions that bring structural continuity to American democracy to this day. By now the story of the genesis of Hamilton the musical is well-known.  The artist, Lin Manuel-Miranda read the biography during his vacation and thought, this could be a musical.  He requested and received permission from Chernow to use the biography as the basis for the book and lyrics of the musical. For nearly eight years, Miranda and Chernow entered into an intense collaboration as the musical took shape.

What I found most instructive about their collaboration was a story that I heard Chernow tell to a group of my Spelman students who attended the play.  Lin invited Ron to sit in on the first reading of some of the musical’s songs.  This is where the actors sing their parts from music stands.  Chernow recounts his shock, when he walked into the rehearsal room and in front on him were a row of Black and Latino actors.  He thought that he was in the wrong room. Quietly he pulled the artist aside. There must be some mistake. As Chernow was to discover, not only had Lin cast all of the white historical characters with Black, Latino and Asian actors, he had chosen contemporary musical idioms of hip-hop, R&B, jazz and, in one notable case, ballads as the musical’s framing musical expressions.

Manuel-Miranda counseled his collaborator to be patient and listen to the songs.  Chernow reports that after five minutes, he was convinced, after 10 minutes he was enraptured.  He went on to watch the musical on Broadway over 40 times. Hamilton the musical is audacious in its capacity to disrupt a single powerful narrative about the origins of our country.  To see that musical was to experience a new vision of our ideal self.  We could see and feel and the pulsing living vibrancy of a set of our democratic ideals that fit young black, Latino and Asian men and women  as comfortably as they fit white slave owners.

Our culture is a living breathing culture. And the artists we train have to be resilient and porous enough intellectually to allow multiple cultural forces to run through them. They need to be aware that they have the power to change the way we see each other and the power to create new ways of seeing the world.