By Dudley Cocke,
International Network of Schools for the Advancement of Arts Education
Miami Beach, Florida, October 13, 2006
Last week at her birthday party, my 12-year-old niece, who lives in rural Virginia, asked me, “Do you have a twenty dollar bill?” She folded it a certain way, held it up, said, “What do you see?” Without hesitation I replied, “The Twin Towers.” “Correct,” she said.
I want to take my initial few minutes this morning to make several observations about arts education, 9/11, and the war on terrorism. I can imagine some of you thinking, “Oh boy, here we go!” And your reaction may be justified. The last time, shortly after 9/11/2001, that I ventured into this subject area I landed on the Twenty Most Dangerous Leftists list of at least one popular right-wing website - how fitting that is for our current time.
Among those who worry about leftists – and among leftists themselves – seems there is a lot of wishful thinking that artists like myself creating from a base in poor, working-class, and moderate income communities are in the liberal – and then some – camp. Roadside Theater’s national partners, who are almost all people of color and keenly aware of the historical relationship between race and class in the U.S., do not necessarily see it the liberal way. Dig down and one will find that Roadside Theater’s values touch those of conservative philosophy: namely, a deep feeling for one’s cultural traditions and how they shape personal and group identity; skepticism about our innate goodness as a species; and a regard for reality. Really, what else would you expect from those usually holding the short end of the stick?
It is my assertion this morning that we, artists and arts educators, have a modest but significant role to play defeating terrorism and that in order to play this role, and thereby engage the reality of our new century, our arts policies and arts training programs need to change.
Shortly after September 11th , 2001, I wrote an editorial forAmerican Theatre magazine in which I argued that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of the Reagan administration, a U.S. policy of cultural isolationism had developed. Such a policy, I contended, would undercut the war on terrorism, because our enemies were not part of a national or military apparatus, but rather part of a global cultural and ideological movement.
From my 2001 editorial:
The terrorist attacks of September 11 and ensuing events have brought home to us the fact that the U.S. is hated by many in the world. A lot of this hatred is based on an ignorance that allows the hater to perceive the U.S. only in monolithic terms, as a heartless materialist and imperialist state. In the longer term, our war with terrorism will be an ideological contest if this was not the case, the terrorists would have surrendered immediately in the face of our overwhelming military superiority. To fight this war, the U.S. will have to step up its international cultural exchange programs.
I went on to make the point that beginning with the Reagan administration our own national arts policy began to narrow, focusing on a few, select Western European traditions.
Evidence of the effect of this narrowing domestic policy is the fact that the U.S. not-for-profit professional theatre presently draws 80 percent of its audience from the top 15 percent of the U.S. population measured by income. [Postscript: I recently saw a 2005 survey by the League of American Theaters and Producers that found 81% of this audience to be white.] So it follows that in the rare instances when international exchange now occurs, it is usually between elites. The result: people outside the U.S. have little or no chance to witness the cultural and spiritual diversity that energizes and propels our country. And now we at home are struggling to sustain this diversity and its energy.
The events beginning with the September terrorist attacks make it clear that it is now in our national interest to end cultural isolationism and replace it with a policy that secures the role of the not-for-profit arts in international exchange and links that exchange to a domestic arts policy that values our own national diversity.
Together, our de facto policies of artistic elitism and cultural isolationism are counter to national and international cultural pluralism, the same pluralism which is fundamental to 21st century democracy and which is the lasting antidote to the poison of terrorism. So this morning I hope that we will have some discussion about the educational strategies available for fostering cultural exchange and understanding across lines of race, class, and geography. It is a way that we at this conference can help the nation get on board with 21st century global reality.