Last month, Americans for the Arts blog was printing excerpts from the writing of Robert E. Gard who primary focused on manifesting the Wisconsin Idea through theater and creative writing starting around 1945.
I first became enamored of the concept of the Wisconsin Idea about 10 years ago. The idea that a state government and university system would be focused on a holistic improvement of the lives of the state’s citizenry is pretty inspiring. Even though political opposition began work to undermine and unravel elements of it almost immediately, people have hewn to the Wisconsin Idea for over a century.
There was an excerpt on Americans for the Arts’ blog of a piece Gard wrote in 1952 that illustrates just how long some themes and debates about the arts in the U.S. have endured.
Your struggle, America, has matured so rapidly that the quaint folkishness of your village has been swept into an almost common molding, and the economic fruit of your struggle has been so plentiful that we, your people, have tended to shun the responsibility of art, sometimes to scorn it, and to look at it askance as a manifestation unworthy of our virile American manhood. You have put down deep taproots, America, that have given us the stuff of wondrous plenty, but these same roots have starved off the expressiveness of yourself. For those of us who have loved you best have not completely understood your struggle, and the art that is in you has only faintly touched the lives of your people.
It became suddenly and completely apparent to me that we could no longer pretend that theater, to have its true vital meaning, could be fabricated and foisted upon the people as entertainment alone, or as sociology, or as an art form practiced by the few for the satisfaction of individual egos. But that theater must grow spontaneously from the lives and the necessities of the people, so that the great dream of a few men and women who saw true visions might come true: the dream of an America accepting the idea of great popular art expression without question, as a thing inherently American.
So there you go, in 1952 Gard expressed concern that: 1 – America has a slightly hostile streak when it comes to the arts or creative self-expression; 2 – Arts needed to be viewed as more than just simple entertainment; 3- Yet not viewed as the province of an elite few, but as place where people saw their own lives reflected.
In 60+ years since Gard wrote that, little has changed. These topics still dominate conversation and are cause for hand wringing.
I am optimistic that things are headed in a constructive direction. Given all the attention focused on programming, casting and employment choices being made in theater and movies, there is a greater opportunity to see oneself and one’s stories.
I am sure Gard was pretty optimistic back then too, and with good reason if you look at all that was created and still endures in the name of the Wisconsin Idea. It is also pretty clear that the effort has to constantly be sustained against both external forces that seek to oppose and erode it, as well as simple internal neglect and entropy.
To some degree, I see the effort to build public will for arts and culture as a spiritual successor of the Wisconsin Idea. The Idea was always meant to become a national influence. While its spread hasn’t been as prevalent as initially hoped, the folks in Wisconsin have been really good about actively keeping the torch lit and the light has indirectly had a positive influence on others.
If you are looking for a guiding principle to help you speak about arts and culture to those who have negative associations with the concepts, you could do worse than to meditate upon and internalize the empathy and ambition of the last line in the first paragraph I quoted:
For those of us who have loved you best have not completely understood your struggle, and the art that is in you has only faintly touched the lives of your people.
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