It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that in the past several years, the performing arts have been dominated by Lin Manuel Miranda. The Broadway version of In The Heights was followed by the overwhelming event that was and is Hamilton and more recently, we’ve had the updated movie version of In The Heights.
These productions secured Miranda’s reputation as an impresario, and his activism and demeanor secured his reputation as a nice guy with good political values. Given his prominence, it wasn’t a surprise to come across recent references to an essay he wrote in December of 2019 for the Atlantic.
It was titled “The Role of the Artist in the Age of Trump,” and it argued that the arts are always and inevitably political.
I was particularly open to Miranda’s thesis because I had just finished reading Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I lived through the events of that time-period, and I was familiar with many–but certainly not all–of the artists and philosophers and cultural icons that Menand meticulously describes (and frequently deconstructs), but I hadn’t recognized how deeply they were influenced by the times they lived in, nor how deeply they influenced those times in turn. (I recommend the book, but with the warning that it’s a pretty dense read.)
Miranda’s opening paragraph makes his thesis explicit:
All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it. If the work tells the truth, it will live on.
What Miranda’s essay and Menand’s book both underscore is that “art” and “political art” are not the exclusive province of the more rarified and snobbish precincts we call “high” art.
Miranda makes that point by looking at the messages conveyed by–of all people– Rogers and Hammerstein.
Consider The Sound of Music. It isn’t just about climbing mountains and fording streams. Look beyond the adorable von Trapp children: It’s about the looming existential threat of Nazism. No longer relevant? A GIF of Captain von Trapp tearing up a Nazi flag is something we see 10 times a day on Twitter, because all sorts of Nazis are out there again in 2019. As last spring’s searing Broadway revival of Oklahoma! revealed, lying underneath Hammerstein’s elephant-eye-high corn and chirping birds is a lawless society becoming itself, bending its rules and procedures based on who is considered part of the community (Curly) and who is marginalized (poor Jud … seriously, poor Jud). Or consider your parents’ favorite, South Pacific. At its center, our hero, Nellie Forbush, must confront her own internalized racism when she learns that the new love of her life has biracial children from a previous marriage. Let your parents know if they forgot: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals form the spine of Broadway’s “golden age,” and they also deeply engage with the politics of their era.
In the essay, Miranda discusses the “message” of In The Heights, and its depiction of immigrants as human beings (a “radical act!”), the contrast of that portrayal with the dehumanizing rhetoric of then-President Trump, and the reason such portrayals are important.
What artists can do is bring stories to the table that are unshakably true—the sort of stories that, once you’ve heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before.. ..I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.
At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them. We keep revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth because ruthless political ambition does not belong to any particular era. We keep listening to Public Enemy because systemic racism continues to rain tragedy on communities of color. We read Orwell’s 1984 and shiver at its diagnosis of doublethink, which we see coming out of the White House at this moment. And we listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable sings about racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s all art. It’s all political.
No wonder so many reactionaries hate Hollywood.