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The arts are crucial to democracy

Vaclav Havel (art by Zbigniew Kresowaty, Wikimedia Commons)

One of the things I wanted to do with more free time after I left the Legislature was to get back on the stage. I’ve always enjoyed theater and have had the opportunity to act in a few productions.  Little did I suspect the opportunity would come along so quickly. In February, I was part of an original one-act play at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, “Children of the Holocaust.” I played Anne Frank’s father, Otto. The play told the story of the Holocaust from the rise of Nazism on the tide of German nationalism, to the imprisonment of Jews in ghettos, and finally the mass murder of some 6 million Jewish people, including 1.5 million children, as part of the Nazi’s “final solution.” It’s a heavy and emotional topic for a play, but important and timely with nationalism and populism on the rise again here at home and across the globe.

I’ve always been an avid supporter of the arts, as a participant, patron and advocate. I was fortunate to be exposed to a wide variety of arts during my high school experience and kept that appreciation into adulthood. Theater, music, dance, photography, pottery, painting ... the list goes on. To me, it’s the arts that make us civilized and differentiates humans from other higher order animals that occupy the Earth. President Ronald Reagan summarized my feeling well when he said, “The arts and humanities teach us who we are and what we can be. They lie at the very core of the culture of which we are a part.”

President Reagan was saying the arts are not just about the innovation and creativity of which humans are so uniquely capable. The arts are also about democracy. That complete freedom of creativity and expression, including at times both subtle and blatant critique of government and society, represent an exercise of our fundamental civil rights. It is not coincidence that repressive governments target authors, painters, actors and poets.

Vaclav Havel is probably best remembered for helping lead a peaceful revolution in the former communist Czechoslovakia and then serving as president of the Czech Republic for 14 years. But before that the writer, actor and playwright was banned from the stage, spent years in and out of communist prisons, endured decades of police surveillance and had his writings suppressed.

A great play, concert or exhibit can transport us away from the stresses and troubles of daily life.  And that’s often welcome. But at the same time a great play, concert or exhibit can challenge us. It can make us uncomfortable. It can force us to consider viewpoints and confront ideas it might otherwise be easy to ignore. To me, that’s a core mission of the arts, to make us uncomfortable. I don’t always like or agree with everything I experience in the name of the arts. But I love that our Constitution and Bill of Rights allows for that freedom of creativity and expression and I appreciate that there are those among us who feel compelled to challenge and push.

We are fortunate in Duluth to have a vibrant arts community. That doesn’t just happen. It’s a gift to us from previous generations who knew the arts were a critical part of a vibrant community. They wanted Duluth to be an attractive place for people from the “civilized” eastern part of the United States to relocate and settle. These Duluthians gave us amazing legacy organizations like the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Ballet and the Duluth Playhouse. That legacy has continued and expanded with a vibrant local arts scene that includes both performance and visual art. It remains an important part of our quality of life in Duluth and a reason people continue to choose to relocate and settle here.

Go see a play, listen to the symphony, check out a local band, attend a photography exhibition. You’ll not only be supporting our local artists and art scene, you’ll also be supporting democracy.

Roger Reinert

Roger Reinert is a Duluth resident.