Anne Bertram: What’s the use of art?

“As a speaker, a pamphlet-seller, a chalker of pavements, a canvasser on doorsteps, you are wanted; as an artist, the world has no real use for you; in that capacity you must fight a purely egotistical struggle.”
– Sylvia Pankhurst, “The Suffragette Movement”

I ran into this statement, ironically, while working on a piece of art. I was doing research for “The Good Fight,” a play about the militant English activists who fought to get votes for women. Sylvia was one of four Pankhursts – mother Emmeline and her three daughters – leading that movement.

As an artist the world has no real use for you. Artists get this message a lot. (“When are you going to start making some money at that stuff?”) Getting it from Sylvia Pankhurst really stung. Trained as a visual artist, she eventually abandoned that career to pursue her activism full-time. Maybe she had the right idea, says a nagging internal voice.

But … wait a minute. What about the art that reminds you to step back, take a breath – maybe even laugh – and adjust your perspective? (Like that scene in “Tripmaster Monkey” where Wittman gets his necktie caught in a bicycle he’s trying to hang on the wall of the Toy Department and thinks, “So it has come to this.”)

Or the art that gives you a refuge so you can recoup some energy? (Like the future Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, where villagers gather on a winter night to share good food, and children play safely in the snow, in “Woman on the Edge of Time.”)

Or the art that expands your ideas of what people are capable of? (Like Sylvia’s own memoir, where early 20th-century Englishwomen keep the issue of women’s suffrage in the news by throwing rocks, lighting fires, going to prison and hunger-striking.)

Or the art that brings people together to talk about what’s happening and what needs to change? (Like theatre did in the suffrage movement, and still does today.)

We need that art. We need to make and share it. With respect, Miss Pankhurst, the world can really, really use it.

Anne Bertram is a playwright and executive director of Theatre Unbound, “The Women’s Theatre” in the Twin Cities.

Anne Bertram recommends these books by women authors:
The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals by Sylvia Pankhurst
Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book by Maxine Hong Kingston
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Shaw and the Actresses Franchise League: Staging Equality by Ellen Ecker Dolgin
Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater by Jill Dolan