AFTACON Keynote Speech: Remarks by Donna Brazile
We welcomed Donna Brazile, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and prominent political strategist, to the 2016 Americans for the Arts Annual Convention as one of our Saturday keynotes in Boston. Below is an excerpt of her speech on the volatile politics we’re living with, and the vital role of the arts. The full text can be downloaded here, and we also recommend that you view the speech and Q&A that followed for other anecdotes and words of wisdom. The speech is reproduced with the permission of Donna Brazile, and except for small quotations may not be reproduced elsewhere without her permission. Thank you to Donna for affirming the value of art and artists, and reminding us of our role as engaged and active citizens in this democratic experiment!
Toni Morrison once said, “All good art is political. … Art has to be both beautiful and political at the same time.”
The arts give us perspective. They demand we see things anew, and challenge the status quo—both the individual’s conceit and the system’s complacency. Art has always been involved in the political process. It impacts elections, topples totalitarians, sways public opinion and transforms society. We need only look at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” the election of 1860 and the Civil War. Or Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and the plight of immigrants, the exploitation of workers, and the need for food safety inspection. Or Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and the threats to our environment, chemical or otherwise.
These issues are still with us, and we need new artists to raise our awareness, strike our conscience, and rouse us to action.
Of course, it is not only literature that is political. All forms are, though some more openly so than others. For instance, the Blues—music that originated with African Americans in the Deep South and expressed their hopes, their hardship, their humor and their resilience—influenced and inspired rock and roll, which along with folk songs fueled the Civil Rights and other movements of the 60s.
In a sense we cannot separate the politics of art from the art in politics. For dictators fear art; they try to suppress it or subvert it. They turn art into propaganda.
But when the arts are so threatened—and they can be even in a democracy like ours—artists have always found a way to express themselves, and to challenge, to question, to criticize inequality and injustice.
So even if an election is worrying, as this one is, artists have to have the courage to carry us all forward.
But even as artists provoke us, and politics as usual, they also reveal to us deep craftsmanship and deep beauty. As Toni Morrison said, we need both. So art’s intense involvement in politics does not contradict; it complements art’s basic function as self-discovery.
Indeed, in a country that prides itself on freedom, there is no greater guarantee of freedom than support for the arts and their development of self-expression.
This may explain why so much of the political impact on, and appreciation of, art depends on the attitude of the politicians, pundits and public toward art. Understanding this affects the practical questions of arts funding, arts education, and the politics necessary to make them happen.
Many in the public and political sphere are resistant to art, try to censor art, are offended by art or try to make it irrelevant, an extracurricular activity of little significance. Vested interests, those who benefit from obedient, submissive, robotic workers will dismiss or marginalize art.
But as Seth Godin says, “An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.” We must all take art personally.
Read the full speech here.