21st Century Art and Politics June 24, 2015

The International Festival of Arts and Ideas launched its program last week in New Haven, Connecticut. The festival is a 15-day long program of performing arts, lectures and discussions that celebrate artists and thinkers from around the world. Yesterday, the INTAKE interns were there to support the Arts as an imperative vehicle for positive social change and a catalyst for international diplomatic understanding.

The event was sponsored by Yale Center for British Art and was held at the Iseman Theatre at Yale University. The event began with Director Arts for the British Council, Graham Sheffield, leading a lecture on “21st Century Art and Politics.” The British Council is the UK’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Its aim is to create international cultural understanding, thus making the way of life and philosophy of British people more appreciated and understood. They believe cultural understanding of the UK gives the opportunity for sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy and ultimately betters diplomatic relations. Sheffield’s division of the organization concerns itself with the Arts- be it literature, music, theatre, fine arts, etc. This division of the British Council trusts that the Arts can be used as a means to build friendliness, understanding, and ultimately harmony between the UK and foreign nations.

Sheffield started his lecture by describing the entanglement between art and politics and how recently there has been political controversy over artistic expression. He noted, however, that art has always been political, giving an example of The Guernica by Pablo Picasso circa 1937. This anti-war painting was a response to the bombings of Guernica, Spain by German warplanes as a result of the insistence of Spanish nationalists led by Francisco Franco. Consequently, this piece of art brought worldwide awareness to the Spanish Civil War.

More recently, he added insight on Edinburgh’s most controversial show: Exhibit B, a human zoo. In Africa, African slaves were placed in cages beginning in the 19th century and until the First World War as a means to legitimize colonial policies. These black tribespeople were brought all over Africa and displayed in villages to show colonial power. Exhibit B by Brett Bailey, a controversial art director, tried to undermine the premise of the human zoos by replacing it with powerful scenes of racism and colonialism. For example, a part of the exhibit shows a woman standing alone in a room with the name “Found object”, criticizing European Union policies towards modern African asylum seekers. Bailey believed that his art exhibition would bring to light the racial profiling, objectification, and dehumanization of black people – it was undoubtedly a social and political analysis of current worldwide institutionalized and systematic racism.

The response to this art piece was mostly a feeling of discomfort and disturbance. Some have even voiced that it was completely and undeniably racist. Anti-racists campaigners in Berlin questioned the authority of a white director undertaking the story of black exploitation. It is clear that art not only promotes political and social awareness but deals with controversial topics like cultural appropriation.

After Sheffield’s lecture the event was opened up to a panel of speakers. Paul Smith moderated the discussion; he is the Director of the British Council in the United States. Sheffield, Antonio Aiello and Afa Dworkin participated in the panel and discussed further the influence art has on politics. Aiello is the Content Director and Web Editor at PEN American center and Dworkin is the artistic and executive director at Sphinx Music and on the board of directors at INTAKE.

Dworkin spoke about her work at Sphinx and its commitment to serve underprivileged blacks and Latinos through classical music and to diversify the audience of classical music as well. Although the efforts of Sphinx are great she acknowledged that there is still a great amount of work to do to make classical music inclusive to people of color by having minorities in professional orchestras, conservatories, and even in the audience.

Dworkin also mentioned, “music is a universal language that is a unifying force.” She spoke about how music is an art form that transcends all boundaries because it is practiced and listened to all over the world. Furthermore, she believes that music brings people together more than any other art form. She was an inspiration to hear and was certainly well versed in her field.

We were very glad to have been able to hear and meet Ms. Afa Dworkin in New Haven for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas as well as the other panelists. We thank the festival and Yale University for supporting the Arts and we also thank Sphinx for all that you do for us at INTAKE.