What makes the Arts "Prophetic"?

On April 25, 2005, The Shalom Center honored Prophetic Voices in the Arts.

Arlene Goldbard, president of the Board of The Shalom Center and a community-arts activist, spoke briefly and powerfully on the value of the transformative arts in making a decent society. Her keynote is posted below.

Tony Kushner, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," was interviewed by Ilana Trachtman, award-winning director of the film documentary "Praying with Lior." We will post our videotape of the interview on line during the next days and let you know when it is available.

We also honored Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and Lynne Iser, especially for their work in shaping the family background of "Praying with Lior" and their work in carrying the film into the world of support for those with cognitive disabilities; and Cantor Jack Kessler, organizer of Atzilut, a musical ensemble made up of Jewish and Arab musicians who do Arab and Jewish music, in venues across America and Europe.

And we published a pamphlet on "The Prophetic Arts in Philadelphia" that reported the arts venues in the city that give special attention to justice, peace, and healing of the earth. We have posted that too, and will encourage the creation of such guides for other cities.

We arranged with the Wilma Theater –- a boldly innovative and experimental theater -- and the Pew Theater Initiative -- for Tony Kushner to teach a master class to young playwrights and actor in the city.

This is the text of Arlene Goldbard's introduction:

Every Prophetic Voices event is a delight: it feels wonderful to honor people who have stood in our society for the awakening of conscience and possibility, especially when the daily news offers so much temptation to go back to sleep.

But I am especially thrilled to be here tonight because this year’s honors are very close to my mission in life, which is to shift our understanding of the public interest in art and culture from the margins to the center of our awareness, where it belongs. Tonight, we honor people who understand that the way we tell our stories—through theater, film, music and other forms—the way we tell our stories shapes our lives.

Making art is the essence of being human. We do it in marble palaces and grass huts, every time we mark the unfolding of our lives. Even under the worst possible conditions, in SuperMax prisons and concentration camps, people save precious crumbs or scrape up mud to make sculptures. They scratch on prison walls with rocks or bits of charcoal. Herbert Zipper led a clandestine orchestra in Dachau. Our ancestors gathered around campfires, huddling against the darkness to share stories of the hunt, the trek, the storm and their meanings. Today we sit in auditoriums, warming ourselves by the light of more complicated stories. But underneath, we are the same. Making stories, images, songs and structures is as essential to us as breathing.

Prophetic artists ask, “What stories need telling now?” They see that to survive the crisis in democracy, to achieve humane and sustainable community, we need the capacity to put ourselves in the other’s place and make choices driven by more than crude self-interest; and the social imagination to envisage new solutions to stubborn social problems. We need stories that draw the connections between public choices and actual human lives, stories that cultivate awareness and compassion.

Empathy and social imagination cannot be learned through intellect alone. Through film, theater, dance, music, literature, and visual art, through sharing our stories of resourcefulness and resilience, through sharing our own creativity, human beings have always learned to know and care for each other, to strengthen our communities and to face down challenges.

To my continuing frustration, while progressives often see art as nice but unnecessary to real democracy, the right sees artists clearly, as in possession of powerful skills of expression and communication, almost always in the service of freedom, equity, diversity and inclusion. The right understands that creativity and public purpose are a potent combination. They passionately want their story to predominate: that this country belongs to white Americans who think as they do, and that their ownership confers the right to exclude, discredit and scapegoat others by any means necessary.

Consequently, they are willing to do anything to disrupt the counter-narrative of art and public purpose. Racism and other forms of discrimination have clearly been one animating force behind right-wing scapegoating: most of their targets have been African American, or gay, or belonged to other vilified categories. But another is the invidious prejudice against artists as exemplars of freedom in action. In media blowhards’ arsenal, artists have been a weapon of choice for far too long.

Art’s essence is its ability to engage us fully in body, emotions, mind and spirit, to create beauty and meaning, to cultivate imaginative empathy, to disturb the peace, to enable grief in the face of loss and hope in the face of grief. The great James Baldwin said that, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” My definition of a life worth living is one marked by a congruence of inner and outer realities, in which actions are shaped by the questions that truly matter most.

No one can guarantee that we will get what we want. All we can do is discover what ignites our passion, offer up our best efforts in its service, and surrender to the processes that have produced so many astounding surprises in the course of human history. As every artist knows, the pleasure is in the doing, at least as much as the result. I salute tonight’s honorees for embodying these truths with such power and persistence.