Politics & The Arts

Jazzing Up Politics

As we find ourselves in the middle of a presidential campaign, the subject of politics seems to be creeping into many conversations. At first glance, the combination of music and politics has little in common and that one really doesn’t have much to do with the other. On the face of things, that may be correct. Today, music and politics have a less formal relationship than they have in the past, often consisting of an artist declaring support for a particular candidate or performing at a political function.

However, music and politics have long had a connection—from campaign songs used to rally the followers of a particular candidate to the politically charged protest songs that dominated the landscape of popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even my specialty, jazz, has had a connection with politics. Jazz has, nearly since its beginnings, been connected to social change, providing one of the earliest escapes for African Americans from the hard labor that would have otherwise been their likely fate.

Some musicians, such as Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, have used jazz as a catalyst for change in race relations or have used the genre as a way to express the frustrations they felt at the way they were treated based on the color of their skin. These artists and others used music to find a common ground with people whom they had little in common. Though jazz began with a strong association with African-American culture, it came to be enjoyed by people of all races, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds and embraced as an American creation, serving as a unifying force.

Politics in America has become incredibly divisive, particularly for those on different sides of controversial issues such as health care, campaign finance, abortion and gay rights. People can be passionate about the issues but it too often leads to one side demonizing the other. This, in turn, leads to an inability or unwillingness to engage in the type of civil discourse that might lead to real change.

This is where jazz and the arts can play an important role, not only in politics, but also in society. I think the real connection between music and politics is a human one. One of the most important functions of music (and all of the arts) is in connecting us to what makes us human and to one another.

The beauty of music is that it can transcend political differences and allow people who may not have any common political ground to find a connection in an innovative jazz solo, a beautiful harmony, a catchy pop tune, or a perfectly constructed melody. Finding these connections can hopefully make us seem a little more human to one another, and possibly be the gateway people need to find ways to engage in constructive civil discourse.

Dr. Tina Claussen
Director of Jazz Studies & Associate Professor

Theatre and Politics

Recent polls and elections indicate that those who voice opinions on American politics remain divided roughly in half regarding what might prove the best path for our country or who might make the next great leader. Boldly assuming that politicians on both sides of the aisle try to do what they truly think is best for the country, we come to the conclusion that neither party is “right” or “wrong,” but rather each possesses different ideas on how best to bring endless peace and prosperity to the American people.

As theatre people, we bring this philosophy from the classroom to the stage by planting a politically engaging debate of ideas within an entertaining work of art. Here, objective neutrality can prove elusive as we create our art within the framework of a script which already possesses the point of view of the author.

In Drury’s 2004 production of Lysistrata, one should walk away from the performance with the idea that war is bad for people and we should do everything possible to avoid, prevent and cease conflict for the good of the nation. Robin Schraft’s choice to direct this ancient Greek comedy during the height of America’s war in Iraq fostered discussion and critical thinking across campus about a contemporary issue.

Ruth Monroe’s 2001 production of Pentecost openly tackled the political and religious turmoil of Ireland, an unfamiliar topic for the majority of our students, so it was perfect for objective critical thinking and discussion. Our 2004 production of Galileo presented the idea that suppression of truth and knowledge hurts society, whether in 17th century Italy, Nazi Germany (as author Bertolt Brecht intended) or 21st century America.

We also use plays in the classroom to create worthwhile discussion of hot-button contemporary topics. Ruth and I both used the script The Exonerated, a play chronicling the stories of innocent people on death row, to foster discussion and critical thought about the death penalty in our Alpha Seminar classes.

Ultimately, whether we present ideas on stage or in the classroom, the goal remains the same: foster an environment for critical thinking so our students can fully ponder an issue and decide for themselves what they think, believe and value. The late Drury Dean Steve Good once said that all good liberal arts schools possess a thriving theatre program for this very purpose.

How students choose to vote ranks far behind the concept that they arrive at their political choices based upon a well-considered, educated opinion founded in objective, critical thinking and careful analysis of both the world at large and their own unique blend of opinions, goals and values.

Mick Sokol
Associate Professor of Theatre

Dr. Ruth Monroe
Emeritus Professor of Theatre

Art, Politics and Pillows

On March 29, 2003, a suicide bomber drove a taxi to a military checkpoint near Najaf, Iraq and blew himself up. He killed four American soldiers. This was the first suicide attack against U.S. troops since the invasion of Iraq had begun ten days earlier. The use of this unconventional tactic would become routine military policy.

In January 2011, the Pool Art Center Gallery hosted an exhibition titled “The Iraqi Suicide Attack Pillow Project” by Chicago artist Benjamin June. Trying to make sense of the horrendous acts of suicide bombers, June creates small, black pillows — one for every such attack in Iraq. On one level the pillows are documentary: on the front is recorded the number of attackers, a picture of the delivery device, and the number of victims; on the back, the date and target of the attack. Exhibited in chronological order, the pillows become a timeline of this gruesome aspect of the Iraqi-American war; a three-dimensional spreadsheet of terror.

On another level they function as metaphor in an attempt to articulate the inexpressible. In their dark fabric and lace, the pillows serve as palpable expressions of repulsion, grief, and loss. In his artist’s statement June notes: “There is an obvious connection between the softness of the pillows and the brutality of the attacks. I chose to make small pillows…to explore the physical intimacy of the suicide bombers with the people they kill. The attacks are more horrific than we can imagine and to explore this I needed to make something that is tangible and approachable. The pillows are accessible because they create a safer environment to process this brutality.”

What makes this bombing/pillow metaphor compelling is the way in which June subverts the nature of pillows as objects of comfort by turning them into memorials of the destructive nature of humanity. These are not the pillows that lead to the pleasantries of our nightly dream world, but rather those on which one enters, by unexpected violence and force, the darkness of eternity. Whatever June’s personal opinion about politics and war, he is articulating an experience that knows no partisanship: tragedy.

The visual arts have a long tradition in expressing the myriad facets of politics throughout history from the political unification of ancient Egypt around 3000 BC carved on the Palette of Narmer to the contemporary photographs and films of Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat, which explore the social and political identities of women in Islamic societies. Art, as with other media, is an active, cultural agent which records, criticizes, celebrates, and perhaps most important (in the best of the liberal arts tradition) questions the human condition. Politics, that multi-headed Hydra of social relationships between citizens and institutionalized authority, provides a plethora of material for the fertile minds of artists.

Despite the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government and the official withdrawal of American troops in December 2011, the suicide bombings continue. In Chicago, Benjamin June is still making small, black memorial pillows. Nearly 1,800 of them so far.

Dr. Thomas E. Russo
Professor, Art & Art History, Director of Study Abroad