EDITORIAL: Art more vital than ever

York Dispatch
  • The cast of a Broadway musical used its platform to speak out to the president-elect Friday night.
  • The act was greeted by disapproving tweets from the president-elect.
  • Art must not be silenced by political oppression.

The cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton made news this past weekend after cast member Brandon Victor Dixon read a prepared speech expressing his concern over the incoming Republican administration following a performance attended by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

In this image made from a video provided by Hamilton LLC, actor Brandon Victor Dixon who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, in "Hamilton" speaks from the stage after the curtain call in New York, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is the latest celebrity to attend the Broadway hit "Hamilton," but the first to get a sharp message from a cast member from the stage. (Hamilton LLC via AP)

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” said Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, as his fellow actors joined hands. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

The next day, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that the cast “harassed” Pence and should apologize. He said the theater should be a safe place and such a thing should not happen.

Such a thing as free speech should not happen? In a democracy?

The Associated Press reported Pence said in an interview that “Hamilton” was an “incredible production” involving a very talented cast. Pence said he heard boos and cheers when he walked into the Richard Rodgers Theatre with his nephew and daughter on Friday night to see the show. He said he told his daughter: “That’s what freedom sounds like.”

Vice President-elect Mike Pence, top center, leaves the Richard Rodgers Theatre after a performance of "Hamilton," in New York, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Instead of taking the cast’s right to free speech personally, Pence supported the tenets of democracy by acknowledging their right to speak out, even if they were in disagreement with him and the incoming administration. Asked whether it was the right time and place for such a speech, the AP reported, Pence declined to give an opinion and said he would let others decide for themselves.

While we don’t agree with many of Pence’s political viewpoints, we believe in and support his message on free speech. We think that’s just the right stance for a high-level government official to take when coming face-to-face with the free and artful expression of the citizens he is to lead.

In a recent essay, novelist Toni Morrison addressed the importance of arts during turbulent political times. Morrison has been honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other distinguished awards. She is also an editor and professor emeritus at Princeton University.

The essay, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” published in the 150th anniversary issue of “The Nation,” explores the theme of the artist’s struggle illuminating the wider human struggle. It asserts that in turbulent times, the artist must not give up. In fact, during such times, the artist must persevere.

Morrison tells of a time, in 2004, when she felt helpless and afraid. She couldn’t work. But a friend reminded her that it was precisely then she needed to sound her voice. After considering this advice, Morrison came to a realization.

“I felt foolish ... especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.”

The tools of political oppression, as Morrison calls them — “othering,” limiting art, scholarship and journalism and distracting with toys, dreams of loot, and themes of superior religion — are real and currently being wielded in dangerous ways.

Art counters political oppression. And it must not be silenced.