Answering the question of what art is, and whose it is, will take you on a direct route to the heart of a community. Who makes the choices about what cultural activities will take place? Which artists are celebrated and which ones are ignored? The small communities, neighborhoods and tribes, where everyone would have called art and culture the same thing and participated according to their traditional role, are almost relics of the past. Most of us live in multi-cultural societies where ignoring what we don’t want to acknowledge can be dangerous for our future.
Ask yourself ‘what is art?’ and you’ll probably answer according to how you grew up. Art hangs on museum walls, or art is graffiti, or art is a useful pot made of clay. Music is played by the symphony, or a jazz quartet, or it’s a beating drum at a Pow Wow. Poetry isn’t really poetry unless it has been published by a reputable publishing house, or it’s recited by a Poetry Slam champion. Theatre is Shakespeare, or it’s where you see the latest movies. America claims to be fighting for Freedom around the world and against extremism. Here in America each small town, city and metropolis is engaged in a struggle for Freedom of Expression in the face of conglomerate uniformity.
Here in Vallejo, California, USA, we are one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. But Art and Culture are almost entirely marginalized at present, with a handful of arts organizations splitting a paltry $200,000 between them in 2007. The organizations which did get some funding don’t even come close to representing the diversity in this city, and the Vallejo Commission on Culture and the Arts, likewise doesn’t even come close to representing or investigating the breadth and depth of culture and art in Vallejo.
Art remains the door of opportunity however, both for economic revival and as a way to create unity instead of disparity. We would do well to examine how we can reach out and embrace what is different around us. We all have work to do to incorporate the culture of the World into our understanding of the people around us and ourselves. Ignorance, far from being bliss, is like a prison. The walls are made of fear. The key to freedom is not only understanding, but participation in something where the conclusion is unknown.
Participating in the unknown could be going for the first time to the annual Filipino waterfront festival the Pista Sa Nyon, or the annual Pow Wow, also at the waterfront, or stepping into a Kajukenbo or Capoeira class, or learning to Hula Dance at the GVRD, or going to the Greek Festival, or buying fresh produce at the Farmer’s Market, or just listening or being heard at Listen & Be Heard Poetry Café.
It might not seem like much to just attend an event. You might not even speak to anyone, or crack a smile (I hope that’s not true though,) but you will listen, absorb, maybe even adjust your perception of people who are your neighbors, but who you might never have spoken to before. Just the simple act of you being there can make a far reaching and lasting difference that you could never have predicted by sitting on your couch and watching cop shows. Here’s to fulfilling the promise of diversity.