Dissent

On August 3, the Kennedy Center announced the recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors.  The KC Honors are one of the most prestigious artistic prizes in the world, with past recipients ranging from Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams, to Johnny Carson and Georg Solti, to Martha Argerich and the Eagles.  Since the award’s inception, the Honors have recognized the lives and work of artists across cultures and disciplines; the only criterion holds that recipients must have made “lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts — whether in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television,” according to the Kennedy Center’s 2017 press release.  Recipients are honored each year in a reception at the White House, followed by a televised gala during which they are seated alongside the President and First Lady.

To claim that the Kennedy Center Honors have ever been anything but political would be naive.  Art is political in its mere existence, be it free from censorship, in defiance of censorship, or in collusion with it.  Creation is inherently a political act; any human activity — painting, dancing, banking, coding — is influenced by, and influences, the political systems that surround it.  That’s not exactly a revelation.  But the Kennedy Center’s very existence is political, given its role as the United States’ national performing arts center, a federally funded “living memorial” to JFK.  That art and culture could — in fact, should — contribute to an American nationalism was one of President Kennedy’s recurring talking points.  In a 1963 speech at Amherst College, he said:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.  I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.  And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

It is significant, then, that when the Honors are awarded in the Kennedy Center Opera House on December 3 of this year, the man seated in the President’s chair — the man who will welcome the Honorees into the White House, and sit beside them in the Opera House balcony — will be a man who has repeatedly criticized and silenced artists; threatened to slash federal arts funding; and systematically demeaned, harassed, and in some cases literally endangered people who are women, queer, immigrants, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and people of color — all of whom consume art or create it, and all of whom have without question contributed to American culture as much as any Kennedy Center Honoree.

It is significant, as well, that this year’s Honorees are Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Norman Lear, and Lionel Richie.  That’s four people of color — including one refugee, Estefan, whose family fled from the Cuban Revolution, and who has advocated for refugees’ rights — plus outspoken Trump critic Lear, a Jewish war veteran who spent his career in television amplifying and normalizing the stories of communities of color.  De Lavallade, a legendary dancer and choreographer, was one of the first African-American dancers to take the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.  LL Cool J is the first rapper to receive the award, amplifying a marginalized art form built on Black narratives; he’s also been vocal about causes affecting marginalized communities that have largely been ignored or dismissed by the Trump administration.  And Lionel Richie, while a celebrity friend of the President, once advised Trump to “do everything the opposite of what you said you’re gonna do.”

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Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and slaughtered 49 people, injuring 53 others.  This marks the most fatal mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history (though even deadlier massacres against civilians have haunted this nation’s past).

The club was hosting “Latin Night” and spotlighting trans performers, so the shooting explicitly targeted not only the already-marginalized LGBTQ* community, but also a marginalized ethnic community.  Though the media has been frenziedly touting “radical Islam” as the shooter’s motive, there is no denying that the primary force that drove this tragedy — this invasion of a safe space for a community already disproportionately vulnerable to violence, homelessness, and suicide — was, above all, homophobia.

I’m heteroromantic, white, and cisgender, so I won’t use this platform to co-opt the LGBTQ and Latinx communities’ grief.  That’s not what this post is about.  Instead, I’m here to talk about classical music.

Remember the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October?  Probably not, because it’s been overshadowed by the 200+ acts of mass gun violence that have taken place in the U.S. since then (Orlando included).  Regardless — back in October, Hartford-based classical music critic Steve Metcalf published an article entitled “Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn’t Hard to Do,” which he later adapted as a radio piece following December’s attack in San Bernardino.

In the article, Metcalf talks about the trope of “thoughts and prayers,” words that are often expressed sincerely yet empty of intent or ability to take action:

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families and friends.  The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we’re called upon to use it so often.

Metcalf then points to the classical music world’s equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm — the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, noted pacifist and champion of civil rights, penned following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The Bernstein quote has been widely circulated on my social media feeds ever since Sunday.  The Orlando Philharmonic even posted it on their Facebook page.  And I’m no less guilty, having shared it on Tumblr last night.  As Metcalf writes, “It has become the classical music world’s automatic, default response.”

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