Art and Culture

There Is No ‘Safe Space’ in Art: What Mike Pence Should Have Learned From ‘Hamilton’

The Daily Beast

November 21, 2016

It is heartening, for those who work in arts and culture, to see their work migrate to the front pages. It’s rare: The world of culture is seen as more rarefied than the 24-hour news cycle.

But the stratospheric success of Hamilton means it has often traversed both. It is that rare thing; an intelligent, stirring work of art that has found a populist home on stage on Broadway, feted not just by critics but by the general public who have been to see it. You’ll have seen its songs and stars on TV, if you haven’t seen them on stage. The difficulty of securing a ticket has become a mainstream joke.

The weekend bought the show back to the front page. One of the actors, Brandon Victor Dixon, gracefully read out a statement to the Vice President Elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience. It wasn’t rudely phrased. It wasn’t rudely spoken. It wasn’t rude in any way. We know this because it was videotaped. We can see it. If you choose to see it as harassment or rudeness, you are willfully misreading what you are seeing or hearing.

Dixon’s speech was a request from the heart, and—this seems to have been somewhat overlooked—a heartfelt plea to Pence to recognize and respect true diversity.

It was aimed at him because as Governor of Indiana he advocated for a range of discriminatory legislation, not least ‘conversion therapy,’ or discredited, cruel and downright weird ‘treatments’ to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality. He has also been accused of ignoring racism.

The gracefully read statement was immediately leapt upon by Donald Trump, the President-elect: he demanded the Hamilton cast apologize. They had been rude to Mike Pence. He had been in a safe space. How dare they?

Whether this Twitter meltdown really was an attempt to divert attention away from the fine he had to pay over Trump University, or any other number of non-Hamilton related controversies that bubble up endlessly around the President-elect, is known only to him and his advisers.

Some commentators dismissed the Hamilton kerfuffle as a mere distraction. If it was, it was a telling one.

What Dixon and his fellow actors did was the very opposite of bullying. It was a piece of spontaneous, extremely polite, direct action. It was an extension of the dialogue of Hamilton: words intended to be heard. As Dixon said on Monday, “Conversation is not harassment.”

Of course, we are now more than used to the powerful assuming the mantle of victimhood when it suits them; for the bullies now to claim they are being bullied.

The small speech admirably showed the power of art. That Dixon and his fellows had to say those words to Pence itself is a shame not on them but on our political and media systems.

Nobody in both these worlds has yet adequately and substantively questioned Pence on his views on LGBT people, or interrogated his legislative past, or asked about his legislative intentions in the future.

It was left to a group of actors to say the words to Pence—far more gracefully than its recipient perhaps deserved, so all power to Dixon and his fellows for being so measured and polite—that Pence’s opponents and interrogators have so far failed to formulate into meaningful questions. The shame should not be felt by the actors for saying what they said and how they said it, but that they had to say it at all.

If Pence took anything away from the performance and what was said to him, it won’t—if he heard the words clearer and more truthfully than how his boss chose to twist the words—be that anything was said in the spirit of hatred, or harassment.

It was, as Pence heard, a clear plea—and how sad it is that such a plea is necessary—for Pence and his peers about to assume great power to respect and honor the civil rights of all Americans. Dixon was, in the purest way possible, speaking truth to power: it was not a cheering moment, but rather a sadly necessary one.

It showed, perhaps louder than either the Hamilton cast or Pence imagined, how vital arts and culture remain. The arts are not a luxury, but a necessity. Arts and culture, high and low, help us make sense of the world around us, and of our place in that world and how we feel about it. And sometimes, as with Hamilton, it can become—most exciting of all—the story itself. Sometimes, as Dixon’s speech showed, art can have a much-needed urgency. Hamilton’s meaning and significance is inescapable; quite literally, as the Vice President-elect discovered, as he scurried from his seat to leave.

Pride can also be attached to the actors’ actions. Here was a cast of LGBT and people of color and straight actors confronting together, not in anger but with a certain resolute strength, a gentleman known for his bigotry, seeking to remind him that his responsibility to govern all Americans should supersede his personal prejudices.

Of course, had Pence been watching Hamilton closely, this message would have been a naturally flowing corollary to what he had seen on stage: the musical itself is about the foundations of democracy, the tensions in forming democracy, the necessity of democracy, and its true, earthy, sometimes unpretty meaning.

That Trump should have noted in his gas-lighting objection that theater should be a ‘safe space’ is to quite misunderstand not just what theater is, but the purpose of culture. Even at its most escapist, what we watch on stages or TV or film screens, what we read in books or magazines, or watch and view online, has meaning far beyond the plot.

Even the fluffiest comedy has a message, even the most ludicrous comedy can provide echoes with our lives.

Hamilton, propulsively and with great intelligence, shows the scrappy but determined gestation of civil, democratic society. It should be a play that Trump and Pence—and all politicians—should not only see, but study and learn from.

Many people have asked, in the days after the election, what they can watch and see culturally to offer them respite or comfort. Their intent is understandable if misguided. Sure, there are some easy answers: you can listen to your favorite music, you could go to the opera, or a wonderful musical like Falsettos, you could mainline The Golden Girls, or The Walking Dead, or The Middle, or Doctor Who, or The Crown, or Modern Family, or whatever your pop or highbrow culture ‘happy place’ is.

But even TV shows with reassuring domestic settings or lush costumes contain implicit or explicit, and uncompromising, messages about civility, diversity, duty, and the exercising of power. Art makes us feel things. It also enlightens or challenges. Falsettos is a night of beautiful musical theatre that requires you confront AIDS, love, sex, gay desire, and the true meaning of family: Mr. Pence, we recommend that as your next Broadway show.

Art does not offer, and has never offered, a ‘safe space,’ it offers a stimulating space, where the level of stimulation—and the many pathways of understanding and emotional impact that come with it—is down to you, the spectator, the viewer, the reader, the listener.

Sometimes, as with Hamilton, it even insists that we engage. It takes us by the scruff of the neck, and does not let us go. Whatever Mike Pence thought he was going to see, and however he felt about what was said to him afterwards, he will undoubtedly have heard it all—possibly clearer than he has ever heard it before. Hopefully it also made him think.