Artists as Activists in The Modern Era

National Sawdust Log

New York, NY

Op-Ed by Lidiya Yankovskaya

Any art is an expression of the world around us, and our world has changed dramatically. When I sat down to write this, I had just returned from a rehearsal for Menotti’s The Consul with Chicago Opera Theater, where I serve as music director. One of the things I love most about opera is the way it brings together individuals of all backgrounds and fields in the creation of a single work. This particular work, an opera that describes the unsympathetic, cold reality of the immigration process, was relevant when it was written in 1949, and has unfortunately become even more relevant today. However, as I watched the diverse cast, the crew moving the set pieces, and the international production team, I felt optimistic.

As someone who came to this country as a refugee, I was shocked by the recent uptick in xenophobia and hostility towards immigrants – here, in The Country of Immigrants. What could I, as an artist, do to help ameliorate this problem? How could I make a real impact? It took some time to formulate the correct response to the hateful rhetoric, rhetoric that became prominent well before the latest presidential election. I found the answer in the opposite of hatred and bigotry—in collaboration.

When we hear the word refugee, even the most liberal-minded among us tend to imagine someone from a race/religion/education level/background foreign to our own. We furthermore make generalized assumptions and blanket statements about foreign cultures. One violin maker told me that she moved to the states because as a woman, she was barred from this profession in her home country. It’s easy to then generalize that the culture she left is oppressive to women, but this would be too simple. While there are virtually no female instrument makers in that nation, there are countless women engineers, architects, doctors, and computer programmers—all careers that tend to be male-dominated in the U.S.

As long as we continue to make generalizations and to view refugees as “other,” we will never be true allies. We must understand that any one of us may at some point seek refuge in fear for our lives and safety—just as the Pilgrims fleeing political persecution, the Irish during the potato famine, Jews escaping pogroms at the turn of the century, southern slaves on the Underground Railroad, and Native Americans marching on the Trail of Tears. We – our culture, our race, and our religion – are not above this. The only thing standing on our side is the incredible diversity of our nation. But, this diversity if for naught if we do not fully take advantage of the opportunities it offers and embrace collaboration and understanding.

Through my work with the Refugee Orchestra Project, I have come to truly understand and appreciate the ability of art to foster dialogue and understanding. By definition, art-making requires an appreciation for breadth of ideas and opinions, sympathy, open-mindedness, an ability to listen, and a collaborative spirit. As artists, we can use the inherent nature of art-making to encourage others to look around more deeply and more critically. By embracing the collaborative spirit of art-making and spreading it to other fields, we can maximize our power in the fight against bigotry and radicalization.

Music is a universal language, uniting individuals from various cultures and backgrounds even when they otherwise have few commonalities for communication. Hence, the music industry is inherently very diverse, and Refugee Orchestra Project performances include artists from across the world. In our residency at National Sawdust, Refugee Orchestra Project attempts to make an even greater impact by expanding our collaborative reach in teaming up not only with musicians and composers, but also with visual artists, poets, and filmmakers.

This wider collaboration was inspired by a joint project between Refugee Orchestra Project and the nonprofit collective Papel & Caneta, who brought us together with creatives from the advertising and film industries in developing a series of shorts that break down stereotypes about refugees in America. As we make art, we are also forced to look inward. Even for the individuals in the room, the expansion of knowledge and awareness during our week shaping this project was life-changing.

The strength of collaborative art lies in its ability to bring light to an issue without dogma. It is not nationalist art created for propaganda that has prospered through the ages—it is the work that observed, commented, and taught. Beaumarchais’s and then Mozart’s portrayal of class structure in The Marriage of Figaro was a shock to the Viennese gentry—not because it called for revolution, but because it showed the nobility as flawed human beings and pointed to systemic imperfections.

Figaro caused those who saw the work or too part in its creation to reconsider the status quo on an intellectual level. That is what made the work dangerous. Likewise, The Consul shows us the sterile detachment of the immigration process, Papel & Caneta’s latest project portrays refugees as relatable human beings, and Refugee Orchestra Project performances showcase the incredible artistic talents of refugee artists. All these projects bring knowledge through exposure and collaboration and are most powerful as a result.

Collaboration is inherent in art, but it is not applicable solely to art. We can all contribute to dialogue and understanding by embracing collaboration across all fields. We can team up with those outside our immediate circle and engage in dialogue—only then will progress be made.

Lidiya Yankovskaya is a symphonic and opera conductor who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Russia in 1995. She currently serves as music director of Chicago Opera Theater and artistic director of Refugee Orchestra Project.

NewsBeth Stewart