An artist's duty, an artist's right

Photo by Luke Michael on Unsplash

Much has been made in the professional music community of the question of who will and will not perform at the Inauguration. Rumors are swirling amid much speculation. We know that Sir Elton John, touted as a headliner early on by the rumor mill, has categorically denied involvement, and while many other well-known names have come up in connection with inaugural festivities, the facts surrounding them remain hazy, except in regard to two performers: the teenage America's Got Talent star Jackie Evancho, and Italian popera tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Evancho is confirmed to sing the national anthem at the inauguration and seems unfazed by criticism for her choice to perform even though she has a transgender sister who is poised to suffer from conservative policies. Bocelli, who initially agreed to perform a duet with the child star, has bowed out of his commitment due to the backlash from his fans, including a social media movement to boycott the star if he sang. 

It's even being reported that DC area marching bands, normally a mainstay of such national celebrations, are staying away.

Couple these incidents with the recent hoopla over the Hamilton cast's address to Mike Pence, and one finds a lot of discussion about the place of artists in politics; and the side of the argument one is on seems to frequently align with who one supported in the election. I have seen a great deal of name-calling on social media and in comments sections; along with assertions that artists should "do their job", keep their mouths shut, and dance monkey dance; and criticisms of the fans for being "narrow-minded" and "forcing" decisions on the part of artists. Even the president-elect famously characterized the Hamilton cast as "harassing" Pence because they addressed him from the stage. 

As artists and private citizens who have to live and work in these turbulent times, we must consider our positions on these matters. They are moral decisions, but they are also oftentimes business decisions. Here are my thoughts. 

We artists are not performing monkeys. 

As artists, we are entitled to conduct our business with integrity, according to our own values, and we are not obligated to hire out our private services to individuals we find reprehensible. I am not going to use my talent to entertain someone who is actively seeking to injure the people, the nation, and the way of life I love; nor should I be required to. 

Public and private affairs are different matters. If I am hired by an opera company to perform a role or a concert, my services are offered to the general public, and I have no say about who is in the audience. It is my duty to offer my best to ALL audience members without regard to their personal or public lives. However, I would be entirely justified in refusing to offer any special courtesies as are often extended, such as meeting certain patrons after the show or attending a private event with them.

But if I am asked to perform specifically to honor a certain person or to entertain them at a private function, I have every right both as a professional and a private citizen to turn them down on the grounds of disagreeing with their politics, actions, or beliefs. Also, I have every right as a professional to make what I believe are good business decisions; including choosing my engagements; and as a consumer I have a right to boycott private providers of goods and services who do not reflect my values, as long as it is not discriminatory. We are all free to make choices, but choices are not free from consequences, and we have to make the best we can according to our consciences and values.

A respected friend and colleague asked me a very good question --- how is refusing to perform for people we disagree with any different than a bakery that doesn't want to make a wedding cake for a same sex couple? The difference is discrimination. Refusing service to an individual based on their actions is not discrimination. Refusing service to a class of people based on who they are is. 

Public accommodation* is also a consideration. Federal and state law prohibits discrimination against race, color, religion, disability, and national origin in most (but not all) businesses and buildings that are open to the general public, whether they are publicly or privately owned. So places like bakeries, parks, hotels, restaurants, public hospitals, transportation systems, retail stores  and yes, performance venues, are forbidden by law to discriminate, regardless of the business owner's personal beliefs. 

However, performers themselves do not fall under the description of "public accommodation" and may execute discretion in deciding to whom they will sell their services. 

A conservative friend and colleague offered these challenging questions: would I be okay with it if an opera company refused to hire me because a company I am boycotting is one of their corporate sponsors? Would I be okay with if if a donor asked that I be blackballed because a statement I made in my private life offended them? 

My answer to this no, I would not be okay with it, and given the opportunity would be able to defend my point of view vigorously. These situations are not the same as the one faced by artists like Bocelli in being pressured to eschew performing for an individual his fans find objectionable. (And here, let me state for the record that I personally have been subjected to pressure and threats against my career, quite publicly as well as privately, by strangers who disapproved of a production I was scheduled to perform in; so I do understand the dynamics). As an employee of a company in a production which will be presented to the public,  I would not bring my personal politics into the professional arena, any more than I would expect the opera company to take a political stance. My involvement in the production is politically neutral and does not indicate approval or disapproval of corporate sponsorship because it involves a public event, as opposed to a private one. It is quite typical in our business to "tone it down" for the sake of professionalism and the harmonious conduct of business. And as for donors, any artist can tell you that we already tiptoe around them and already are subject to being out of work if a big contributor dislikes us for any of a myriad of reasons. 

Finally, to address the issue of whether artists should use a professional platform to advance personal agendas, i.e. addressing public officials or private individuals from the stage. It's a bit more complicated,  and depends on many factors, so bear with me.

To a certain degree, the same concept of public vs private applies. As previously stated, if you are part of a public performance and are there as an employee, your employer has a right to demand a certain standard of conduct from you, and spontaneously addressing the public from the stage on a private matter probably does not fall within acceptable parameters. However, if the company has agreed to allow you to make a statement, that is their prerogative and there's nothing wrong with you, the artist, taking advantage of the situation. For example, for decades it has been standard practice for casts of Broadway shows to give curtain speeches in which they solicit funds for organizations that support AIDS research and services --- no doubt offensive to some theatergoers --- but nevertheless sanctioned by the company and therefore legit. 

In the case of the Hamilton cast, they had the approval of the company and the show's author; and they did not in fact advance an agenda; they merely took advantage of the presence of a public official to respectfully voice some concerns and request that he take them into consideration --- in no way harassing him (their curtain speech has been conflated in many quarters with the fact that some patrons --- private citizens --- spontaneously booed Pence as he entered the theater. Others cheered). Public officials have given up a certain right to privacy, especially when they appear among their constituents, so I have no problem with a prominent person being singled out for a publicly delivered message.

If an artist has accepted a private engagement, similarly, they have accepted employment and owe a standard of conduct to their employer which includes a responsibility to offer their best to the audience, even if it includes individuals who they disagree with or cannot support. It would be inappropriate in this circumstance to voice privately held political opinions uninvited. 

On the other hand, if an artist is self-producing an event, whether or not it is open to the public, they have a right to conduct themselves as they see fit (but are not free from the consequences of that conduct, especially if it's ill-considered). 

Last but not least, it's futile and silly to insist that artists remain politically neutral. Have you MET us? Have you SEEN art? Art and artists are, by nature, inflammatory. Art is intended to provoke thought, feeling, and reaction. It is historically and by nature controversial and not intended for universal appeal. Artists, by definition, possess and communicate a point of view. We are historically agitators. Art that does not make you think, feel, and react is bad art and its artist has not done his or her job. 

And so, my friends, don't expect artists to sit out the next four years, or eight years, or hundred years, quietly. Don't expect us to put on cute hats, dance to the organ grinder's music, and rattle tin cups at you before we are led tamely away. You may not always like us or approve of us, but my dears, one thing you can count on --- you are going to hear from us. 

It's what we do. 

*Thanks to photographer and Austin Opera supertitles coordinator David Grant for directing me to this line of investigation!