Political Change from the 1960s to Now: Connections Between Arts & Activist Movements
As a child of the 1970s, like many in my generation, I have grown up somewhat in the political shadow of the decade before me. For the more conservative members of my family, the 1950s were a great source of nostalgia (especially in the ‘80s); but for my progressive and politically-engaged mentors and elders, the memories, victories and sometimes mythologies of the 1960s loom large over every movement my generation participates in or initiates. The specter of the ‘60s is both an inspiration – an ever-present image of a revolutionary moment my generation has not yet experienced, of what might still be possible in organizing and mass engagement of our society in the struggles of our times – and a nostalgia imposed upon us, that implies a moment passed, forever out of reach, or even a lack of faith that the generations to follow could ever do quite as much, or have truly revolutionary effects. This duality provokes a variety of responses in young activists, from hope and attempts to emulate both the styles and strategies of the ‘60s, to a rebellious exhaustion, a sense of being “over it” (which, in the worst case, results in apathy or reactionary politics), to a determination to show exactly how politically powerful the next generation can be, and how we do it differently. Still, those in the latter category have yet to receive the recognition deserved for the incredible activist and organizing work that is being done in our time; and perhaps we won’t, until the children of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and the new millennium are the ones writing the history books and mentoring those who come after us.
Ironically, however, something that persists through these generational shifts in progressive work is both the ever-present and impactful relationship between political and cultural movements, and the struggle for the work of cultural organizers and arts activists to be fully recognized, understood, and valued.
Throughout the 1960s and the remainder of the 20th century, there was a strong relationship between political movements and cultural or artistic movements in the United States. In the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was closely connected to the Free Southern Theater, for example, and the Black Arts Movement arose directly from the political philosophy of the Civil Rights era and struggles for Black liberation that came before and were in motion around the world. The Chicano Arts Movement, with historically important arts activist companies such as Teatro Campesino, was inextricably linked with Latino/a struggles in the U.S., and the development of political and theoretical frameworks such as transnational solidarity among indigenous peoples, border studies and activism around the politics of borders and immigration. The Women’s Movement saw the rise of more women in various forms of cultural production, from journalism and media to playwrights, and leaders of arts organizations and non-profits centered in feminist politics and methodologies. The Gay Rights movement gave birth to decades of solo performance art, and later during the AIDS crisis, the work of activist organizations such as Act Up! and allies could not be separated from mass cultural demonstrations such as Day Without Art and the AIDS quilt. The artistic movements, even if viewed by some as marginal, have always been central to the impact of political change on the hearts and minds of people.
Much of the current field we now know as community-based arts, or community cultural development, stems from these political movements and their cultural arms. In the early 1970s, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) began to employ many politically engaged artists in public service to their communities, providing work for some of the artist who are now leaders in this field, and led to the founding and growth of a whole host of non-profit organizations that are now in their 30s. (A lot has already been written about this, so it may be best to just refer those interested to some important resources: see Jan Cohen-Cruz’s book Local Acts, a survey of community-based performance from its early roots, through its flourishing during the politically-turbulent 1960s; for articles about CETA and Community Cultural Development, see writings by Arlene Goldbard; and for a broad array of articles and documentation, visit the impressive Community Arts Network on-line archive at http://www.communityarts.net ).
Further left out of some of these histories is the arts-activist movement popularly known as Hip Hop. In the 1970s, Hip Hop was born as a community-rooted art form, consciously connected to grassroots activism, a way of empowering people of color across communities and promoting peace through poetry and dance battles rather than turf wars, with politicized and visionary leaders such as Afrika Bamaabtaa. Later in the ‘80s, as we know, Hip Hop became commercialized as its popularity as the music of a new generation grew, and corporate interests took control of its mass production for the mainstream. But Hip Hop activists never stopped their work in the streets, in the classrooms, in the underground media, in their local communities and in self-made global networks. From We Got Issues! and Rock the Vote engaging a new generation in the electoral process, to re-engaging students in their own education and increasing literacy through Hip Hop’s lyricism, to Black Out Arts educating communities about the prison industrial complex, to global speak-outs such as Poets for Palestine, “Old School” Hip Hop practitioners stay true the roots of community aesthetics and the activist impulse to speak truth to power, stand up for justice, and believe in the possibility of change.
From the late 1970s and through the 1990s, the fight to integrate the radical ideas of the ‘60s into higher education, and to institutionalize certain concepts, hit academia hard. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst campus, was a hot-bed of student activism and a national leader in the movements for “multiculturalism” in education, and the development of departments such as African American Studies, especially in the ‘80s. New WORLD Theater, an activist arts program dedicated to supporting the development of new works by artists of color, was born in this climate (in 1979) and found a home within the institution supported, by a strong radical presence in academic and student leadership. In the 1990s, New WORLD Theater became a leader in supporting the cultural movement known as Hip Hop Theater, or “Future Aesthetics,” ever-connected to its activist roots. Now, at NWT’s 30th year, the political climate has changed so drastically at the University, much farther to the right than it was 30 years ago, that the administration has chosen to cut the award-winning theater, pointing to the recession as a reason for divestment. (Despite the fact that history shows us, from the New Deal in the 1930s to CETA in the ‘70s, that civically-engaged arts can be exactly one of the things that helps our communities rebound in times of economic crisis.)
So where are we now? Have we entered a new round of the Culture Wars? It would seem so, with the recent attacks by right-wing media, such as FOX News, on the Obama administration’s engagement of the arts and culture sector, the NEA’s participation in economic recovery funding, and engagement campaigns such as Organizing for America. We may indeed be in the back-lash we worried about, and we may be only at the beginning of yet another struggle over the legitimacy and importance of diverse art and cultural production in our nation. Hold on to your art, folks, it is on once again …
But even in the face of all the political regression of the early part of the 21st Century that we’ve already been through, followed by the excitement and promise that Obama’s election has brought back to our popular imagination, and the quickly-following reality check that it’s not going to be an easy road … there are still important cultural and artistic movements actively being born, reforming themselves and growing, in tandem with the politics of our time. The wake of September 11, 2001, and the fierce and immediate rise of Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiment, pro-war fervor, and general xenophobia that subsequently seized the (not very) United States – even this has been met by formation and growth of a historic Arab American cultural movement. Also, an expansive and inclusive Asian American Theater movement has taken shape in recent years. And since the Seattle riots erupted in the late ‘90s, in protest of corporate-led globalization and the increasing imperialism of global capital (which we are now experiencing the collapse of), more and more activists, and more and more artists, are working together across identities and causes: working in the INTERSECTIONS, and making the connections that could actually change this dysfunctional world once again. Yes, from the 1960s to the 2010s, the work is still happening in the streets … and in the information highways … in the classrooms, the airwaves, the prisons, the war zones … and especially, in the places where politics and culture meet.