Despite being more connected than we ever have been, today’s world is, arguably, more fragmented than it has been since we entered the era of the global village. We can track the shift: think Brexit, Trump, and the rising of imaginary walls in what seems like a regression to Cold War-era isolationism.
But let’s not be too quick to become despondent. I believe the fault lines we’re seeing emerge are probably the last hurrah of old, staid ways of thinking. Traditional power is in a corner, and right now it happens to be screaming the loudest. The more people feel their way of life (or thinking) is under threat, the more likely they are to retreat into silos where all ideas are familiar and comfortable.
That’s where the artist comes in: to challenge, to disrupt, to interrogate what makes people uncomfortable, and push us towards understanding ourselves and the world more fully. Good art is often not born out of comfortable spaces, but comes from conflict and collision – and it’s not until there’s difference that people collide. Through collision there’s an exchange of ideas and perspectives, and through that exchange, if those involved are really listening and applying themselves, art, as well as the acknowledgement of a shared humanity and connection to the planet we live on.
“Every culture has its origins in hybridization, interaction, confrontation. In isolation, by contrast, civilization dies out. The experience of the other is the secret to change,” writes Octavio Paz in an essay on art and culture.
Young people today feel less defined by national borders, and increasingly see themselves as global citizens. Modern technology and media connect us all. We are increasingly becoming aware of “the other,” of how their differences manifest in their perspectives, and we are learning to listen, sometimes readily, sometimes with more resistance. If we accept our role as artists, and take responsibility for creating art that grasps at truth, we can tap into the collision and the difference, experience others, and challenge each other, as well as our audiences. Art is, after all, confrontation. We can become a collective made up of a kaleidoscope of culture that pushes new modes of expression.
But to do this, we need to think outside the box. We need to go outside the box if we are to collide. We need to be curious, raise questions, and be understanding, even if we don’t find the answers that we sought. We need to think differently about booking art, making it, marketing it, curating it and selling it. We need to dismantle traditional ways of thinking to build newer, more nimble models that adapt to the world’s changing dynamics and reflect our myriad of truths, through our practices and experiences.
This work is already happening in museums, in art centers, in hospitals, in academia, in businesses. It’s happening everywhere, in all the spaces in which there’s tension, where we push ourselves in new and potentially unknown and brave directions. I like to call our generation, especially the youth of today, the “slash” (/) generation because we’re not afraid to throw caution to the wind and try our hands at new and exciting things. Today’s artists, myself included, wear many different hats.
In addition to my roles as theatremaker, educator, and international arts advocate/consultant, and underpinning all of them, I’m a connector. I’m curious about people and I encourage them to be curious about one another. I’m fortunate enough to be able to facilitate the exchange of ideas and practices through programming conferences and hosting long tables where the art “elite” sit alongside young cultural innovators. These forums are vital sites for disruption because artists are the real cultural diplomats, as their creations speak to the people, their audiences, the loudest, and make further linkages possible.
Too often I hear people say they “can’t.” “How?” they ask. They get so bogged down by that question that they don’t even think about the what. They don’t realize that the closer they get to the what, the clearer it becomes, the more the question of how begins to fall away. When I hear an artist say, “I can’t,” I ask: “How do you work in a field of imagination, of dreams, of access, and say it cannot be done? You are here, in this field where we have the privilege of engaging with ideas and expression, and with that, comes responsibility. You must speak your truth. You are a thought leader. Discover what you have to offer, acknowledge it, and let it radiate from you. You’re here. You have power. You’re in a position to make a difference and create change.”
There’s a dire need in art, and the world today, for voices to speak, limbs to tweak, brushes to streak, from a new, diverse generation of artists. The current fragmented world this generation grows up in, just like others before, is a particularly fertile ground for the creation of art. Increasingly, our communities are rich with people from all walks of life. It’s an ideal space for collision, for learning, for artistic expression. Let us not pigeonhole what culture should be. Let us not build walls around our traditions. Instead, let’s allow ourselves to engage and collide with all the “others” around us, and march to the tune of a future that’s pregnant with potential. Let’s tap into our moment of political and ideological fission to create art that does not shy away from difference or shirk uncomfortable questions. Engage. Learn. Create. The world is our audience…as well as our teacher.
(Images: I-DENT-I-TIES, a large-scale interdisciplinary performance project with 50 students of the University of the Free State Qwa Qwa Campus, South Africa. Creative Team: Djana Covic, Nico de Rooij, and Erwin Maas.)
Erwin Maas is a New York based theatremaker, educator and international arts advocate from the Netherlands. He has worked extensively in Australia, Europe, South Africa and USA. In New York, he directs numerous productions Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway as well as Site Specific. Maas is the Artistic Director of the International Society for Performing Arts (ISPA), Artistic Associate & Director of the Fellowship Program for the International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY), Co-founding Director of the Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE), and the Programming Director for the Off Broadway Origin Theatre Company.