They come for the artists first

shepard-greaterthanfear-copy-768x1024Like many people across the world, the words of Pastor Martin Neimoller have been foremost in my mind these days.  Set on permanent repeat actually.  A bass chorus chanting under my daily conversations and routines ever since Trump assumed occupation of The White House, and particularly in light of Holocaust Memorial Day.

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a communist.

I am assuming you are familiar with the poem and its chilling reminder of how dictatorships begin and where they end.  If not, I advise you to commit it to memory and keep its message close to your heart in these troubled time.

But this morning I realised something important: the poem is wrong.  They—the big, faceless (well, no longer faceless, actually), all powerful, fascist THEY do not come for activists first.  They come for the artists.  Upon realising this, I felt stupid for never seeing it before.

As a second generation Drama teacher, actor, writer, singer and advocate of the arts, I have always known that The Arts frequently go unacknowledged and under-appreciated.  In my student days at an American High School, I raged about the fact that The Speech Team I competed and regularly won for never received the same sort of recognition given to the football team who regularly lost.  Out amazing, talented, hardworking Music Department had to sell candy bars every year just to afford the basics of uniforms, instruments and travel expenses.  I never once saw the sports teams having to do this.  It enraged me.

Thirty years later, as a teacher of The Arts, little has changed.  Arts programs are always the first to go.  Artists accept this.  We hate it but we accept it.  We are not viewed as essential or important or necessary to the world, no matter how deeply we know in our hearts that we are.

But this morning I woke up and realised I had it all wrong.  Not only are we essential—of COURSE we are essential—but those in power know we are.  The Big, Bad They knows exactly just how essential and powerful and necessary artists are and that’s why The Fascist They is terrified of artists.  That is why artists become targets, and not just for budget cuts.

Who did terrorists attack not once but twice, in 2011 and 2015?  Charlie Hebdo.  A magazine.  Why was Charlie Hebdo targeted?  Because of art.  According to inside sources, Trump plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and for Corporate Broadcasting.  Even before assuming office, Trump began a Twitter war with the artists of Saturday Night Live and Hamilton and, of course, with the press.

In the seventeenth century, Cromwell shut down the theatres.  Before him, the medieval church did the same.  Both Cromwell and the Church he despised believed the arts were sinful and dangerous.  In the cast of the latter, this did not apply when the arts were used to glorify their version of God.  Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain—all suppressed the arts through censorship and media control.  It’s practically step three of The Dictator’s Handbook: control the artists.  If you can’t control them, shut them up.


Because The Big Bad They knows artists have power.  Possibly more power than the military or the agitators of the opposition.  Art stays.  Art expresses.  Art hits us in the head and the heart.  Art makes us laugh at the people who want to scare us.  Art changes everything.

jimmy_c_anne_frank_street_art_berlin_10081In English classes, I teach about the importance of art in World War One propaganda.  How poetry and poster art rallied the reluctant to the cause.  A century later, poetry is all that remains of Wilfred Owen, John McCrae and August Stramm.  Anne Frank never meant to use her diary to change public understanding of The Holocaust, but it did.  She showed the world what it lost through the experiences of one little Jewish girl and her family.

And what did we see in the streets last week across the Globe?  Wave after wave of art in the form of protest signs.  The craft of knitting on display, topping the heads of the mob in fabulous pink.  And music: glorious, noisy chants and song.  Poetry from the podium.  Angry art on the march.

Hitler knew about the power of The Arts.  He was an artist himself and he used art to manipulate the image of Jews.  Music too became an important rallying cry for German Nationalism.

But The Art must be controlled.  It must serve The Them.  It cannot be allowed to flourish.

So what?

My history teacher was forever asking us: So What?  Why is this important?  Why do we need to know this?

Because we have to keep making art. It is an essential part of the resistance.  Keep arting, keep acting, keep writing.  Keep expressing your truth and sharing it with the world.  That last part is essential: share it with the world.  If you are not an artist yourself, become a supporter of The Arts. Go to galleries, concerts, theatres.  We need art more than ever now.

Fascists fear art, so we who wish to resist have an obligation to be their worst nightmare.womens-march-on-washington


Love’s Labour’s Art

A few years ago, I unofficially mentored a small group of my performing arts students who formed a band—a quite good band calling themselves Captain Backfire.

‘Get some good promotional photos,’ I suggested.  They were good looking lads.  ‘Business cards.’  They already had a website.  ‘A memorable tagline that will summarise what you’re about.’  Funk the Blues—because they were a blues-funk fusion band.

‘When and where is your next gig,’ I asked.

They answered.

‘How much you getting paid for that?’

‘Erm…’ they mumbled.

‘WHAT!’ I bellowed.

‘But there’s a cover charge at the door,’ protested the lead singer.

‘And who gets that?’


‘How many people do you think will come to that pub to see your band?’

‘Hundred,’ they underestimated.

‘What’s the cover charge?’


‘How much is a pint?’

‘Three pound.’

‘How much you reckon your “hundred fans” will drink?’


‘Do the math.’  They did the math.  ‘Your work is making the pub that much money and you will see none of it.’

‘But we’re having fun,’ argued the lead guitarist.

I don’t doubt you are, dear lead guitarist, but that is not the point. You are offering a service and you should be paid for it.  Can the pub landlord play guitar?  No.  He can’t fix his own plumbing either, so he pays a professional.  Even if that plumber really enjoys fixing drains, you still pay her.  You always pay the plumber.  You pay the piper too…and the drummer and the singer and the guitarist.   It’s bad enough our little performing arts department has to fight flute and spotlight to be recognised as a proper subject area without our leading stars disrespecting what they do as well!

I like to think their ears still ring from that little tirade of mine.  It was delivered with a high-level of technical projection.  I am after-all a drama teacher.  Incidentally, two members of the now defunct Captain Backfire play together in an even better band called Hunting Bears (music available for download, check out the website for gigs near you).

I delivered a similar lecture to our school’s art teacher with whom I frequently car-share.  He had agreed to take photographs for the restaurant where his daughter worked.  When I asked how much they were paying him he shrugged.  I nearly drove off the A1 in my indignation.

Recently Yorkshire-based writer and God of Well-Chosen Words (that is my title for him not a self-proclaimed moniker) Matt Haig gave his own lecture in a blog post entitled: “The Writer and Money.”  In the post, Mr. Haig vents about writer’s who write for money.  The heart of the argument, though I encourage you to read his post in full, is that writing and money do not mix.  His main irritation seems to come from writers who write just to make money and to debunk the assumption that writing is a “winning lottery ticket”, a phrase I recall him using in a previous, gloriously vocabularied tirade.

Writing – good writing – comes from a deep place. It comes from somewhere far inside us. It is a passion, and the etymological root of passion is to suffer. We head into the dark and mine our minds for jewels we never knew were there. Money belongs to the opposite space. It belongs to the material world, the world of surfaces, the unpoetic world of brash that surrounds us.” 

I told you he was the God of Well-Chosen Words.  And several other writers had some well-chosen words for him—many of them unduly harsh.  The harshest comments, I am sorry to say, were from my fellow Americans.  The Passive Voice blog posted select quotations from the original blog.  I was slightly amused/horrified by the lengthy debate over “dressing gowns” but mostly I was disgusted by the amount of vitriol inspired by Matt Haig’s perceived attack on taking money for art.

For me, making money from my art is not about finding a winning lottery ticket or becoming the next JK Rowling.  I’m not that naïve.  As someone with a theatre background, I know that for every Kate Winslet, there are hundreds of equally talented actresses who work union rates and are glad to get it.  That is the nature of the profession and I make it my business to demystify the glamour of acting for any student serious about pursuing a performance career.  My university professor Judy Hart told our graduate acting class (probably every acting class she teaches): “If there is any other job—ANY other job—you could do and be happy, then do it, but if this is what you have to do then go into with your eyes open and your head screwed on straight.”  Those might not have been her exact words but the sentiment is accurate.

Art is work!  For some it might be a hobby or a necessary creative outlet for coping with stress, but for most of the artists I know it is a trade.  If you’re a cake decorator and someone you aren’t related to or under threat of blackmail from requires a cake, you except them to pay you for it.  For ingredients, time and most of all expertise.  You pay lawyers, mechanics, doctors because you cannot do what they do.  Not everyone can make a sculpture or play an instrument or write a poem.  They might be able to shape clay, warble in the shower or put words on paper but that is like calling yourself a pilot because you found the UP button.

Earning money from my art is about respecting the work of all artists.  We cannot escape the fact that we live and work in a capitalist society.  Financial earnings don’t just symbolise the worth of our work, they are a material indication of how highly our work is esteemed.  How can I, a creative artist and teacher of the arts, disrespect art by not acknowledging that it is a job people get paid to do.