On the role of the arts in activism

Donna Davenport
Professor of Dance

The power of the arts as activism resides in both personal autonomy and the pleasure of community. We are alone and together. Any person who perceives art can partake in aesthetic experience however and whenever they want. Their individual capacity to re-think and re-do is invited within the arts context. No one is forced. Not like lectures and speeches, people wandering through an art exhibit, sitting in a concert hall, or watching choreography or theatre, can experience what they choose and ignore what eludes them. They can see what they know they must see. The male gazer must face his own voyeurism. The racist must face her own contempt. And timid eyes and ears must endure courageous images. Most artistic messages are delivered neither in academic rhetoric nor verbal vernacular. Even poetry is not precise; it is holistic. The language of the arts is color, line, relationship, sound, action, emotion, rhythm, kinetics, sensation and human inquiry. “I don’t get it” is a familiar response. But what is there to “get”? There is never just one thing.

Viewers have the opportunity to be titillated, rejoice, miss or dismiss, claim righteous superiority, cry or put their hands over their ears. Yet most people are in the audience to learn; they want to be moved or they would be somewhere else. In our seats, we want to feel something. The liminal space between art and the viewer allows an intangible dialogue that permits grace of the human spirit. This open space invites the viewer to take in whatever they can manage to absorb, and maybe later that night, they think about it; maybe they discuss it with someone who will listen. Maybe they’re changed. Maybe they’re challenged. Maybe they’re inspired. The possibilities are exciting to imagine. I used to separate the work of social justice advocacy from my work to promote dance as art in education. That distinction — social justice “versus” dance — melted away at least 10 years ago, and I realize that my whole academic identity changed as a result. Working with colleagues and students in social justice studies has led me to acknowledge institutional racism; invisible indigenous people; embedded hierarchies; liberal hypocrisy; my own naïve, complicit role; and critical actions of community.

I’ve learned that it is no longer enough to teach students to dance in anatomically safe and expressive ways, to integrate creativity and craft, to write articulately, to read closely and to be intellectually “deep.” None of that academic training has any meaning if students do not also value and seek difference, understand themselves as ethnic and racial beings, recognize their own fortune, realize the opportunities they’ve had and overtly respect others who have had less or no access to safe education, kindness, nutritious food, health care, arts training, equity and all the amenities of privilege that are taken for granted.

As a multi-racial woman, I hope that my teaching acknowledges the very real chains of oppression and the traumas of discrimination for all marginalized people. As a professor, my goal is to teach students to question their assumptions and the social constructs that have taught them their values. In my role as an artist-educator and a community volunteer, I want to model ongoing care and the will to work, to communicate across difference, to utilize the power of my privilege and the opportunity of educated people to make the world kinder and safer. Over time, the Colleges have made me a warrior for change.