Artistic Identity in the Age of Fascism

(or: You don’t bring nuance to an iron fistfight)
This piece, “Artiscit Identity in the Age of Fascism,” by Abbey Fenbert was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on December 3, 2016.

Writers don’t like protests.

My first (and until November 2016, last) mass protest was Bush’s second inauguration. I bussed overnight to DC, where activists handed me a cardboard coffin draped in the American flag and set us on the march.

The chants stuck in my throat. No subtlety. No depth. I was seventeen, a college freshman, studying politics and writing. Show me what democracy looks like! It looked like a mob cry swallowing individual expression, and the coffin was a little much.

Writers don’t like protests. Come on, what? A generalization, unlayered, lacking nuance. Of course plenty of writers take part in protest. Of course what I meant was that protests at times make me queasy, not in the abstract but in their practice, and the source of discomfort lies close to the nexus of ego and curiosity that feeds my writing. After ‘04, my fledgling activism gave way to art and education. I studied the Holocaust and the USSR, joined the Peace Corps, and wrote plays. Theatre became my way to engage with the complexity of the world; to resist simple messages and uncover truth beneath layers of nuance.

Now, I, and many others, believe that fascism of a brand America has never known is seizing control of the white supremacist infrastructure America has never dismantled.

You do not bring “nuance” to an iron fistfight.

There’s no point indulging in the kind of needlessly complex thinking that so often plagues the intelligent and the well-informed,” writes Liel Leibovitz, a descendant of Holocaust survivors. “The only thing that matters now is the simple moral truth: This isn’t right.

Oh good, good. My entire sense of self is at odds with the fight against fascism, even as my entire sense of self demands fascism’s defeat. Question: does a person need a self? Does an artist?

There is a line in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name Is Asher Lev that’s guided me for years: “As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.” I took it to heart. Privilege gave me space and safety, the kind that makes social justice work feel less urgent. I wanted to write and I didn’t like protests.

And now a fascist white supremacist is taking over the American government.

People will tell you that theatre matters now more than ever. They will remind you not to become that which you resist. They will insist that complexity and criticism and tolerance are the true repudiation of fascism. They will be right.

But that is the dream for tomorrow, not the fight we face today.

When the levers of power are seized by the small hands of hateful men,” says Leibovitz, “you work hard, you stand with those who are most vulnerable, and you don’t give up until it’s morning again.

Anyone who reckons seriously with the dangers of authoritarianism and the lessons of history must see resistance and disobedience as their mandate.

So the long work, the good work, the steep climb and deep excavation of critical thought and compassion, of art that builds civil society—it’s not that it doesn’t matter, for these things have always mattered, but that the clock is running out. I studied art and atrocity. One may devour the other, but art bites one tooth at a time and atrocity swallows whole.

Let’s reckon, then, the loss. We will have less time, and less freedom, and will have to lend our voices to simple shouts at the barbarians in power and the mobs who put them there. At times we will be cruder versions of ourselves. It will be a waste of our skill and intellect. We have to do it anyway.

I’m not asking anyone to stop creating or to flatten their art into propaganda. Vaclav Havel kept writing and telling the truth, and we must too. Remember, though, that dissidence overtook his art. I’ll still write—for my own survival if nothing else. But don’t be lulled by vague platitudes about the “importance” of theatre. In this moment, the art you do matters insofar as it meets the dictate to resist and disobey.

Did you throw up just then?

I did. I know what it sounds like. The word “dictate” was not accidental. I am ashamed, and adrift, and very afraid. As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and the truth as you see it.

So strip the self to its smallest part and find its barest truth. Mine says: fight annihilation.

If you do not think the stakes are that high, you have not been paying attention.

Vaclav Havel, perhaps paraphrasing Gandalf, wrote that “the real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.”

This is a eulogy for our invented selves. For the art we could have made, and the people we could have been, had we lived under brighter stars than these.

The Vaclav Havel Center