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When Art and Politics Mix

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Less than a week before the presidential election, around 30 members of the Juilliard community met for dinner and a roundtable discussion with President Polisi to discuss politics and its impact on the arts. Initially, students had the chance to talk among themselves about their own political concerns and passions; unsurprisingly the election was the primary focus of their conversations.

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However, as the students adjourned to the board room to meet with the president, such discussions came to a halt as his opening remarks expressed a desire to not just avoid the matter of the election, but also to discuss much more pressing matters such as the First Amendment. Just hours earlier, members of the Westboro Baptist Church publicly stated their intent to protest outside Juilliard the following morning. Was it our duty to counterprotest? Does art have a natural political and social utility? How do we draw the line between the artful and the needlessly provocative?

Before long, the conversation expanded to matters of programming and how best to obey the artistic conscience while keeping an eye (or ear!) toward the audience. Performances, like protests, can have repercussions—works such as John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer can easily make waves because of its content alone, regardless of the performance. What happens when our art ruffles the feather of those who enable our ability to make it (yes, donors)? On the other hand, are there works that are indeed too controversial because of unsavory historical associations? The far-reaching legacy of colonialism in North America is still apparent today with the North Dakota Access Pipeline. How might Juilliard musicians and dancers creatively and constructively re-create a work such as Rameau's Les Indes Galantes without succumbing to the dehumanizing stereotypes that were originally conceived in the work?

Andrew Forde (MM '16, viola) noted that such a delicate balance often has a depoliticizing effect. Artists are “supposed” to make that which is beautiful and even offer respite from unpleasantness. But as with any pursuit, escapism can be easy. The really hard work is in engaging, not escaping.—Second-year master's harpist Parker Ramsay holds an Irene Diamond Graduate Fellowship and a Hobin Harp Scholarship.

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