In 2015, the National Endowment of the Arts led an initiative where they asked various staff members throughout the agency what they actually think about the arts. One employee, Jennie Terman, wrote the following:
“The arts matter because they help us see the world from different perspectives. They give us empathy and help us understand people, places, periods of history, and issues with which we may otherwise be unfamiliar. They comfort us in grief and energize us in celebration. They are important because they can act as a catalyst for change…they can start a revolution! The arts ignite something in our brains that I can’t explain, but I know it’s essential for life.”
When I first read this article three years ago, Terman’s quote immediately left a mark on my heart. I still carry her words with me to this day, and they continue to inform how I see and understand the arts in our current moment.
That said, this post will be dedicated to explaining why the arts matter today. The assumption that the arts are a source of entertainment has become quite pervasive—an assumption that tracks back many years. Often times, when I tell people that I work at the Kennedy Center, I hear this assumption illustrated in their responses. While I certainly hear many reactions, I often hear the following: “Oh, that must be so fun!” and “Do you get to see free shows? I bet you’re really enjoying that…” etc.
I have to be honest with you, though. While the arts can be entertaining, often times, they are indicative of something deeper and more profound. My intention is not to undermine the importance of entertainment, as I love it just as much as the next person. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that Art and Entertainment are two different things (with some overlap).
Last week, I attended a performance of The Color Purple in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Because the advertising team had been marketing for the show the past few months, I was fortunate enough to obtain a free ticket. For those who are unfamiliar, The Color Purple, based on the 1982 epistolary novel by Alice Walker, focuses on the life of African American women in the southern United States in the 1930s.
After watching the show—an experience that was laced with laughter, tears, and frustration—I realized that what I had witnessed was more than a “fun” thing you do on a Tuesday night. Rather, I was transported to a destructive moment in history and besieged with numerous issues, one of which examined the exceedingly low position that African American men and women held in American social culture. More-so than just offering a broad overview of the struggles experienced by the African American people, however, the story focused on the lives and stories of a few women in particular. In other words, The Color Purple transported me to a moment in history, while also offering me the opportunity to witness the stories of individual women.
I’ll be perfectly honest with you—watching this musical was anything but entertaining. The music, while beautiful, was set against the backdrop of hate, revulsion, and inequality. Despite the difficult subject matter, the music and the dance showed just how important the performing arts were to these women. It was more than just entertainment—it was a way of showing the resilience of the human spirit under harsh and oppressive circumstances. It was a means of survival—a way of showing that African Americans are active presences, that they are beautiful, and that their stories matter, too.
The arts matter because they empower us to look honestly at ourselves and our society, as well as prompt us to think, feel, and re-examine. Therefore, we must support the arts because a world without art is a world without culture, heart, passion, or creativity. After the show, I was inspired to think more deeply about the performing arts in general, and now I encourage you to do the same.