When We Talk About Violence, Where Does Art Fit In?

By Anna Joranger

Concerning my intense start to a recent workday: Skimming the many e-newsletters weighing down my inbox, my attention was completely taken over by this article in the Trib. Can the arts help curtail the killing? The city’s kids are dying, and something has to be done. The arts have a role.

It was featured in Americans for the Arts’ Arts Watch newsletter with “Illinois” prominently displayed beside it.

It scared me, the name of this state poised next to such a grim topic. I do not want Chicago to be synonymous with killing. And yet, here we are.

But, a spark of hope. The article also indicated this: That using the arts as an anti-violence crusade is no longer such a head-scratching topic. The Chicago Tribune itself is acknowledging the violence afflicting this city and its youth is not going away, and maybe, just maybe, the arts can offer a glimmer of light.

A few weeks ago, here on this blog, we featured an article about an Urban Gateways summer apprenticeship program at the School of the Art Institute. High school students in this program participated in media arts activities that focused on themes of race and class. Violence was a key topic, maybe in part because of an especially deadly summer. The class watched “The Interrupters” documentary and wrote poetry in response to the film. Their reactions are vivid, to say the least.

This subject is personal and difficult for many of our students. And this summer, with the topic hanging heavily in the air, it is becoming personal and difficult on a much broader scale. Rightly so. When 17 people are shot and killed in Chicago over the course of one weekend, people really should notice.

Chris Jones made an excellent point in his Tribune article: That when we are faced with something so chilling, it may seem inappropriate to turn the conversation to “fluffier” topics like dance or painting. But the arts are anything but fluffy, and they speak directly to the issue at hand. Just look at Crowns at the Goodman Theatre.

Let’s push this a step further (and I could not have said it better): “The arts really are one of the few ways open for these kids to express themselves and safely tell — or paint or play — their side of a tough story. This city’s poets, musicians, writers, dancers, muralists, painters, actors are a world-renowned civic strength and, in this crisis, a mostly untapped resource, especially if we’re talking about an en masse deployment, in wave after wave. It’s not like anything else seems to be working.”

Artists have types of wisdom to share, and types of expression to impart, that many kids have never accessed before. No one anticipates that “deploying” artists to gang-affected neighborhoods will solve all our problems, halt all killings, turn Chicago into a place that is known only for its “sun-baked”, “turquoise” lake. But if an artist helps a single student to re-channel their energy, or convinces one person to write rather than picking up a gun somewhere down the line, then that’s what I call a solid start.