Last Monday, United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Susanne Baer of the Federal Constitution Court of Germany hosted a talk sponsored by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance about the role of the performing arts in advancing social justice. The event aimed to discuss the pivotal role of the arts in defining the human condition and bringing about justice, and featured student performances that aspired to demonstrate the powerful ability of art to foster understanding and make the world a better place. The justices’ discussions further served to emphasize the importance and necessity of the arts in our world. The evening felt like an impassioned and convincing plea for society to remember the value of the arts. It was particularly timely, considering recent rumors that President Trump will eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

During the discussion, the speakers raised the subject of the relationship between government and the arts. Baer, speaking about Germany’s attitude toward public funding for the arts, said she thought government support for the arts demonstrated that the arts are “part of our civic society.” She said that in Germany, arts are something that cities are proud to fund, because they provide a source of “who we are.” 

In contrast, Sotomayor said that the United States has less of a tradition of public support for the arts, and that most U.S. cities fund their arts through the generosity of the public. She emphasized that it is part of our civic responsibility to support art. Still, Baer raised the idea that a compromise between public and private funding might be preferable, since many artists need a steady source of income.

Regardless of where funding for the arts comes from, the justices agreed that art holds a unique and special power to communicate the incommunicable. Sotomayor said art can touch the soul. Baer said art is not just a product, but it can “reach out beyond what we usually reach out to.” They spoke powerfully about their experiences with art, and how those experiences shaped them.

Baer said she was “in awe seeing the multiplicity of human expression through music.” Further, music speaks to her “on another dimension that (she) couldn’t understand otherwise.” Sotomayor said her most deeply felt views on the criminal justice system came from a spoken word project by the Innocence Project. She said performance moved her “to think more broadly about how our criminal justice system affects our society than any of (her) readings at night.”

Sotomayor’s perspective on our criminal justice system was profoundly shaped by one performance, and her position on the issue in turn has been, and will continue to be, reflected in Supreme Court decisions that shape the criminal justice system. This alone should be proof enough of the value of the arts. But art doesn’t haven’t to affect the opinions of one of the world’s most important legal minds to have a significant, positive impact.

Take, for example, Carla Dirlikov Canales, an Ypsilanti native and world renowned opera singer. Canales spoke at the event about how artists can be teachers, educators and healers, not just entertainers. She would know, having founded the Canales Project to “give voice to issues of identity and culture through the arts and conversation.” She has been named to Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015 and has served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. Department of State. Before she began her beautiful performance of “Habanera” from “Carmen,” Canales implored the audience to remember that the arts allow us to explore the common human condition, and that this is especially vital in currently divided times.

Overall, the event was compelling in its advocacy for the indispensable role that art plays in our lives and in society. Of course, it was a prime example of “preaching to the choir.” I would be shocked if anybody in the small crowd who bought tickets to see an event called “Social Justice and the Performing Arts” doubted the importance of the arts. The self-selection of this event, and many similar ones that take place on college campuses all the time, is a shame, because I think some skeptics might have been converted.

I, for one, can easily call to mind the powerful ways that art has shaped my view of the world. Whether it be rap music, foreign films or musicals, art has taught me a lot about the world and made me a more compassionate person. I urge everyone to think about how art has shaped their lives and consider what role we as a country should play in promoting the arts. Do we think that we should leave the arts entirely to will of the public’s generosity, even if this means that art might increasingly become the product of elite preferences? Do we think that cutting funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is necessary, even if they only compose less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget?

As the Trump administration’s radical changes to our country keep coming at lightning speed, don’t let these potential cuts go unnoticed. The arts might not be as critical of an issue as immigration or health care, but the role they play in our society is large and irreplaceable.

Mary Kate Winn can be reached at winnm@umich.edu.

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