Last weekend we saw an excellent performance by the Sarah Bush Dance Project, “Rocked by Women.” The performance, danced by a company of six wonderful dancers, represented the personal journey of choreographer Sarah Bush, done to the accompaniment of women musicians.
The journey started with songs from Holly Near and Cris Williamson, and included a reference to Olivia Records. It went on to include many other women musicians, including Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco, and Missy Elliot.
Bush, who was born in the 1970s, grew up on women’s music. It provided a soundtrack for her life even as dance became how she relates to the world. Combining the music with the dance provided the audience with a deep understanding of her path as a dancer, a feminist, and a lesbian, and gave us room to look at the way that music affected us as well.
Because it did. The women’s music that began to develop in the 1970s provided a soundtrack for feminist activism, just as the women’s bookstores that popped up around the same time provided a haven and the feminist writing of the time (both fiction and nonfiction) provided ideas.
As we deal with the current struggle to recognize women artists of all types – each year we get summaries of awards and reviews that confirm once again that books by white men get the lion’s share of attention, a situation that is probably just as bad in music and visual arts – it’s good to look back and recognize the base built by those in the 70s who pushed limits, defied the rules, and in one way or another, got women’s voices out to the public.
I went to women’s music festivals in the DC area in the 1980s, running sound for a videographer friend, which gave me a backstage view. This wasn’t long after I’d stumbled into serious science fiction reading. As I have said elsewhere, a lot of the SF/F I read early on was by women, giving me a different perspective on the genre than those who got hooked earlier than I did.
I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the power of seeing people like you on stage, of reading stories by authors who incorporate you into their vision of humanity, of finding a home in a world that previously alternated among mocking you for your ambition, criticizing your failure to be the “right” kind of woman, and praising you for being “different from all those other girls.”
Yes, it’s also important in politics – I keep waiting for the number of women in the U.S. Senate to hit 30 (there are 20 women senators now) because I suspect people will then start complaining that it’s “dominated by women”. And in business, law, medicine, science, engineering, construction trades – the list is endless. Real women doing real things that were once only done by men show that the world has changed.
But art is a special case. It stokes our imaginations, stretches our minds, creeps into our unconscious selves, and shapes us in new ways. It’s very important to have women creating art, and especially to have them creating new venues and opportunities with expanded ways of looking at the world.
The more exposure we can get to new and different visions from art, the broader our minds will get. We’ve seen this in science fiction with the Tiptree Award. And I’m so happy to be publishing with Aqueduct Press, which is “bringing challenging feminist science fiction to the demanding reader.”
Not every change in art has to be political, of course. What we’re doing here at Book View Café is part of a change in the vision of publishing, just as what indie musicians and artists eschewing the gallery system by selling online are doing upends their industries.
But increased diversity in art – whether we’re talking gender, race, ethnicity, or different geographical locations – is part of the whole equation. It isn’t just women who’ve been excluded in the past.
The purpose of art is to rock your world. Who’s rocked your world lately?