How do we inspire the youth in this country to have opinions, tell their stories, and encourage them to change the future of this country. By letting them do…all of those things. Time after time I feel like I am seeing too many adults get in the way of the one thing they set out to do when it comes to giving teens in this country a voice. The controversy surrounding the criticism of Steppenwolf Theatre’s Young Artists production of “This Is Modern Art” has sparked a larger conversation surround class, age, race, and how can we actually inspire teens in this country.
“This is Modern Art” is a production by the Young Artists wing at Steppenwolf about a 2010 event were a graffiti group tagged the Chicago art institute. The harsh criticism of the production came from Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune and Heidi Weiss from the Chicago Sun Times. A majority of the criticism of the criticism was about the lack of understanding that these two white reporters had for this “urban” art reform and their refusal to recognize it as an art form.
“It can be invasive, self-important and disrespectful of the property of others — and plenty of struggling folks have had to clean graffiti off something they own or love. Graffiti can be inartful, for goodness sake. More importantly yet, graffiti had the effect of making people feel unsafe in the city. It terrified people. It was only when public officials declared themselves determined to wipe it out that cities finally came back to life, with broad benefits. ” ( Chris Jones Chicago Tribune)
This comment was completely unsurprising to me. Graffiti has always been synonymous with delinquent impoverished poor and troubled teens who are bored and can’t stay off the streets. Instead of viewing Graffiti as a necessary means of guerilla expression, it again is masked with its stereotype. However, Mr. Jones counter was more appealing to me.
“If you ask me what’s personally difficult, it’s to be called a racist, as I was, and to be called an idiot. I would not say to a person of a particular race or generation or gender or anything that they had no right to write about something outside their experience. I don’t reject the notion that I have a limited view, Obviously, I am who I am. Anybody in my job is one person, one identity. They say, ‘He’s older.’ Well, when I started, I was younger. I started writing reviews in Chicago in my 20s. Guess what—this just in—I’m now older. Does that mean I’m suddenly no good, of no value? Because I have grown older in this job?”
I thought this was a very interesting counter to the critics of the critic. This is America, we have free speech. How I, as a multiracial women in my 20’s meets and understands a piece of work about graffiti is very different then how an older white man in his 50’s meets a piece of work about graffiti. Do I think that he understands the culture of graffiti and how it came to be. No. He doesn’t, but i’m not going to sit here and judge him for that. We all age and one day i’m going to look at the “Youth” of this country performing an art form that I don’t understand and i’m probably going to pass a hard judgement. But I to would not want my critique written off as stupid, banal, or outdated. We need to stop criticizing the older generations for not “understanding us” and just accept they were born in a different time and place. If you are hell bent on making a change in this country (or any country) It’s the opinions of the teens and young adults who are going to make the change. Influencing them is what is important.
This leads me to Mrs. Weiss’s critic of what “kids” should and should not be viewing.
“This play is a wildly wrong-headed and potentially damaging work — one that fails to call “vandalism” by its name, and rationalizes and attempts to justify that vandalism in the most irresponsible ways. It also trades in all the destructive, sanctimonious talk about minority teens invariably being shut out of opportunities and earmarked for prison in a way that only reinforces stereotypes and negative destinies. Counterproductive in the extreme, it deepens and solidifies racial and class divisions and a sense of hopelessness among those who need to dwell on possibility.” (Heidi Weiss Chicago Sun Times)
STOP TALKING TO ME LIKE I’M STUPID. That is my biggest complaint with “adults” (even if I technically am one now.) You want to empower the teens in this country, you want to get them off the streets? Stop speaking to teens like they don’t know how to form opinions. Stop censoring what is and is not appropriate for them to see, and hear. You can’t form opinions of the world if you don’t have the opportunity of seeing it. Graffiti gave people the opportunity to protest their oppression, whatever that might be. I’m going to make something that forces people to see it. To see me. To hear me. That is protesting and it is a safer form of protesting then blocking a highway in a dark tunnel at night. (Yes, I know people who have done that.) Graffiti in no way inspires “hopelessness” it’s actually an extremely empowering art form for the individual. Does this mean that all forms of graffiti are this way? No. Not at all. There are always going to be people who want to start trouble and will draw a penis on the wall. Just because someone has a spray can in their hand doesn’t mean they’re a delinquent. Just because a person see’s a play about graffiti doesn’t mean they’re going to spray paint their entire town nor does playing a violent video game mean a person is going to join a gang! Free will. Power of choice. How do you make choices? By having opinion. How do you form opinions? By seeing, hearing, and being a part of something you do or do not know.
You want to empower today’s youth, Let them talk. Let them decide for themselves what’s important. Guide them, but don’t stifle their growth. If you were 15 what would you have wanted?