Sunday, January 22, 2012

Art is Communication

In The House of Dreams, Jane Addams wrote, "nothing is more touching than his encounter with a group of children and young people who are emerging from a theater with the magic of the play still thick upon them." This beautiful imagery of art is how she begins this essay, that later castigates this very art as causing violence and depravity. Upon further research, I discovered that it was melodrama and vaudeville that cause her concern and she believed that exposure to theater was important in the education of young people. Seven years after Hull House opened, she established a theater where "young people might better understand life through its dramatic portrayal." In February, 1896 she wrote, "There seems to be a general awakening on the matter of plays. We hope this enthusiasm will be utilized to produce plays of good standard. A simple, healthful play with real characters is most delightful, and beneficial to both actors and audience." (Women in American Theater by Helen Krich Chinoy, 2006)

In his book, The Making of American Audiences, Richard Butsch attribues Jane Addams as causing the beginning of censorship stating that Addams was one among many writers who publicized stories of children imitating movie crimes. Censorship then became the result of early reform. Chicago (the city where Hull House is located) became the first city to enact censorship in 1907 followed by dozens of other cities. Reformers claimed censorship improved the moral quality of movies.

Jane Addams understood the power of this art form to communicate a message and she learned how to utilize it to teach and shape young people.

In his essay entitled, Criteria of Negro Art, W.E.B. DuBois discusses art and the racial struggle. First of all, he talks about wanting to be "full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens." His conclusion is that until the "art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human."

The first uniquely American African American art form embraced by the white culture was Jazz. It had it's roots in New Orleans as an "improvisational musical dialogue" from people who didn't have the status or money for formal training. As the white culture allowed this expression of art, it spread to Kansas City, Chicago, and New York where it became featured as the main entertainment in "white-only" clubs such as the famous Harlem Cotton Club. It's rhythmic, hedonistic, rebellious, animalistic nature became synonymous with decadence, base morality, and pleasure-seeking of the time period. The musical Chicago, portrays Jazz and booze as the cause of every evil from promiscuity to murder.

The white people of the time didn't take the black community seriously, but had no trouble using their music for their own pleasure and purposes. The Cotton Club, for example was an elite, white only jazz club set in Harlem. That in itself is an ironic twist of the times because they needed a place to dance and hear their favorite music, but it was only available from black musicians. (source, Dr. Clark Roush, Ph.D. in Music Education)

I've attached a video showing a scene from the movie musical Hello Dolly. This is not a jazz club, but it is an example of "black people in their place" which was to entertain only. Notice the band in relationship to everyone else in the scene.
Louis Armstrong is a kingpin of Dixieland Jazz, but in this scene is portrayed as a caricature.

W.E.B. DuBois understood the power of art to communicate a message. In fact he believed art to be propaganda, stating, "I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent."

My questions is this, is DuBois' propaganda, communication?

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