An Artist’s Place in Social Justice by Gus Mahoney Up until last year, after the commotion of the holidays, I would sit down and begin to set goals for the […]
An Artist’s Place in Social Justice by Gus Mahoney
Up until last year, after the commotion of the holidays, I would sit down and begin to set goals for the upcoming year. But alas, I realized that the idea of setting goals was living in this linear mindset and not being realistic to the often wavy and unexpected progression of life. I needed to focus on journey rather than result. Therefore, instead, I began to give myself a few archetypes to focus on for the year. 2017 was the year of the warrior and the embracer. Now, I’ve decided 2018 will be the year of the activist artist (and the warrior again, those 2018 midterm elections are right around the corner!).
When leaving this fall to go off to college in a BFA Acting program, one question lingered in my mind: Is this the right thing to do? Is this the productive thing to do? How does studying this help progress our country forward? After watching the country fall to pieces the past year (if already wasn’t in pieces before), I couldn’t help but feel wrong about going to school to be an actor. It felt as if I was wasting my time. I mean I love the theatre and it’s what I want to do with my life but a big part of me felt I needed to be out in the streets fighting the injustices of our world. I reluctantly went anyways and soon realized that my thinking was completely backwards.
I often have this conversation with my peers at school: What is the artist’s responsibility as a citizen? What place do artists have in the fight against injustice? What can we as artists do? Now I don’t have the full answers to the questions, I don’t know if I ever will, but what I’ve realized is that I need to stop focusing on answering these questions and rather just try to make the change I want to see through my art. I first began to answer this question this past March when “I Spy”, my play about a young refugee child stuck in the JFK airport under a fascist government immigration ban on Islamic countries and the TSA agent taking care of the child, was produced in my high school’s new play festival. I wrote this play in a haze of frustration and sadness as a response to the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban in the early days of his presidency. When the play was produced a few months later, the response to the play was unlike anything I had ever truly witnessed. Following each performance, the audience, in tears, would sit in the darkness for a few seconds before clapping in complete silence. You could feel the tension in the room as the audience as a unified unit was stuck in the confusion, in the sadness of the play. The play forced the audience to be faced with the truth of our time and many just did not know how to react. After one of the performances, an older white man with tears still in his eyes came up to me in the hall and said, “I just didn’t see it that way before. I just didn’t see that these are human beings that we are treating this way. Thank you for helping me see that.”
Now I don’t tell this story to toot my own horn or to give myself a pat on the back, but I tell this story to show what art can do.
Artists have the power to change hearts.
Artists have the power to fire up a heart.
Artists have the power to heal a heart.
Most importantly, artists have the power to unify hearts.
You see, I believe that social justice is a spiritual thing. Achieving a sense of justice for all people in this society cannot happen unless we are united in the human spirit and there is something super powerful and uniting about an audience sharing a piece of art. I constantly see audiences of different colors, ages, genders, and abilities share in each others humanity. They laugh, cry, sit in silence, and scream together. Together. Artists unify this world.
When putting this into the context of EYEJ, it is important for people to understand how social justice can come in many forms. For me, social justice lives in the spirituality of art. For others, it comes through in different ways but we are all united not by our experiences or our actions but by our spirits and our love. As an artist, I will attempt to tell stories of humanity and that is my form of social justice.
So, in 2018, I vow to embrace my role as an artist in helping to create the just, empathetic society I want to see.
So here’s to the year of the Artist: an activist and a warrior.
For more information about EYEJ – go to eyej.org
EYEJ Millennial Board Member