After Trump: Why Art Must Go On

I woke up this morning uncertain how I would be able to attend the book release of the book I co-wrote with Ayden LeRoux. It seemed frivolous, like painting the house while Vesuvius is erupting. Add to that the performance I’m producing with the Odyssey Works team this weekend — a thirty-six hour long experience for an audience of one person — an experience aimed at the subtle narratives of that person’s existence, at the interplay between meaning and states of perception, at the potency of empathy. How to do such a thing when facing the reality that a man who has admitted to sexual assault, reveled in racism, and celebrated his megalomaniacal narcissism is now poised to be our commander-in-chief?

My father was not such a cynic, but he used to say that the elected officials usually represented the darker angels of our nature. It’s hard to argue with that now, and the evidence certainly suggests that the baser impulses in our collective id have carried this gestalt of an election.

But what does this say about us? In working with a form of artmaking that goes deep into the divided natures of our psyches I have grown convinced that we are not merely good or bad, kind or selfish, but sites of struggle between these forces. The hatred urge struggles with the empathy urge, and the fear urge with the urge to embrace; I don’t much believe in free will, but if there is such a thing, I believe it exists where we participate in these struggles.

I teach a design ethics class, and on the day of the election we discussed the ethics of serving the group and serving the individual — of working for wealthy clients so you can feed your family, say, and volunteering for Architects without Borders. It was the best conversation of the semester, and though we didn’t arrive at a formula for right living, we did come to the agreement that what was most important was that the question remain alive in one’s practice.

Where, then, is art and performance in all this? I believe that art is a kind of applied ethical inquiry — an exploration of the self that allows the fundamental nature of our life in the world — the aesthetics, the rhythms, the social relationships, the psychological orientation, even its material nature — to be actively questioned. In any of these we may move toward fear or toward empathy, toward the fortress of the ego or the expansiveness of a life together. In a moment of art or performance we have the opportunity to engage these investigations together.

When I woke up this morning I didn’t know if I could justifiably ask people to come to an event for a book about art. But then I looked over our book again. It is structured around six proposals that I hope address these ethical questions: we talk about beginning the artistic process with empathy, about involving your audience completely, about questioning the received wisdom of the art forms we inherit. To me, these are ethical questions, ontological questions, questions worth sharing with others.