I didn’t want to believe all of the hype surrounding Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, even though he’s my favorite composer. In retrospect, I think that I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. But I listened to the soundtrack and made my parents buy tickets to the show six months in advance of a planned trip to New York; I memorized the soundtrack and then counted down the days until I was sitting in a mezzanine seat in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, clutching my Playbill, knowing my life would be changed once I opened its contents, once the clock struck 8 pm. I knew I would soon be escaping my own world for the incredible race-bending spectacle that is Hamilton.
Many view Hamilton as the most amazing piece of art that they’ve ever experienced, and I would have to agree. What makes that so? While the songs and choreography are inventive, the narrative flow and character development hew closely to traditional musical theatre storytelling devices. But the musical is a transcendent piece of art because it asks its audience to completely reimagine our nation’s creation story, seeing men and women of color in place of the white historical figures with whom we have grown up with and have become accustomed to seeing.
When we learn a history filtered through white male eyes, we are only seeing one small segment of the story. We miss other pieces of the story, and that renders history incomplete, by marginalizing people of color, women, people who are gender fluid, etc. White males, the normative group, become convinced of their own superiority when they are in control of representing the “Other”, and those who are different become less than. Artists, however, can give voice to the Other through representation in literature, painting, theatre, music; art provides the opportunity for the Other’s humanity to be embraced by listening, by allowing the Other to be in control of how they are seen. Artistic representation then, is an important way in which the Other can be redefined and be given full personal agency.
On Friday October 21, all NYU Tisch freshmen gathered at Town Hall in Times Square for a plenary lecture given by Deborah Willis and her son Hank Willis Thomas. Both are Tisch alumni photographers, combining their art with politics and themes of love and agency to create social commentary. During their lecture, they took turns explaining that there’s no common history shared among all of us — so whose stories are being ignored? If we as a society aren’t hearing those stories, how does that inform our understanding of those who are ignored? And what happens to the Other, whose story is being ignored?
In his essay “Vermeer in Bosnia”, Lawrence Weschler provides an example of how artistic representation can humanize the Other. He writes about his habit of studying Jan Vermeer’s paintings as an escape from the preliminary hearings at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. Weschler is there to observe the trial of alleged war criminal Dusko Tadic, charged for his role in Serbia’s 1992 to 1995 genocide, the ethnic cleansing of over 100,000 Bosnian Muslims. The facts, as they emerge from the trial, are truly, crimes against humanity, but Weschler’s friend, Italian jurist Antonio Cassese, is able to take a break from the Tribunal and find tranquility in the Mauritshuis museum, “[spending] a little time with the Vermeers” (779). Weschler comes to realize that Vermeer’s paintings, “the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity”, were made at a time when “all Europe was Bosnia […]: awash in incredibly vicious wars…of an at-the-time unprecedented violence and cruelty” (779). Weschler wonders: How did Vermeer, born in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, a time of unspeakable violence, come to create images that evoke a sense of untroubled order?
Weschler acknowledges that the war criminals’ acts were beyond violent and inhumane. And as he sits with the Vermeer paintings, he realizes, to his surprise, that “the pressure of all that violence (remembered, imagined, foreseen) is what [Vermeer’s] paintings are all about” (780). Wait, what? How can serenity and violence coexist in one frame? To explain his realization, Weschler notes that literary critic Harry Berger considers that Vermeer’s paintings intentionally keep themes of war at bay; but Weschler comes to understand that while Vermeer was surrounded by colossal turbulence, he “[found] — and, yes, [invented] — a zone filled with peace” (781). Berger believes that Vermeer is warding off disorder, while Weschler sees Vermeer calling order into being.
What’s intriguing about this tension, the idea that war and peace can exist within one painting, is art’s adaptability: a great work “can bear — and, indeed, invite — a superplenitude of possible readings, some of them contradictory” (781). This malleability allows for various perspectives, perhaps otherwise invisible, to become known. Both writers receive a sense of peace from the paintings, but this distinction in their opinions provides differing methods with which we can cope with turmoil.
If a work can be read a million and one ways, though, can its creator ever hope to achieve an intended purpose with their art? Can an artist ever hope for a stable meaning in a work of art, or will interpretation always muddy it? Will the message get skewed after displaying the painting? The sculpture? A photograph? And what do the viewers’ reactions have to say?
In “Frederick Douglass’s Camera Obscura”, author Henry Louis Gates, Jr. investigates how Frederick Douglass, the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, used photography to “reverse the world’s order” and the ingrained associations between “slave” and “black” as well as “white” and “free” (27). Douglass (1818-1895), an escaped slave, abolitionist, and statesman, knew that in his photographic portraits, he needed to present himself as a dignified, intelligent, cultured black man. In doing so, he hoped that this personal representation would lead to a similar understanding of the African race. Douglass used a distinct oratory device in his speeches called chiasmus: “repeating two or more words or clauses or grammatical constructions, balanced against each other in reverse order, a rhetorical “x,” somewhat akin to a linguistic seesaw” (27). For example, to destroy the construct that slavery dehumanizes men, Douglass wrote: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (27). By turning a presumption on its head, Douglass made room to question, to consider the possibility that we are more than what reaches the eye.
Seeing is believing. Well-known artwork and commonly experienced photography inform our worldview and the ways in which we are guided to see specific people. For example, the story of the founding and development of our nation as presented in American history textbooks features white men in positions of power and government adorned in layers of rich and costly fabric, black men ornamented in chains, Native Americans growing food, carrying spears, and wearing beads, and women, if shown at all, are taking care of children or, at best, fighting for the right to vote. The educational system, with all its flaws and inequalities, shows students a fixed history that can ignore others’ truths. How we see history depends on what’s represented, on what we are told and what we see.
During the Q&A session at the Tisch plenary lecture, I asked both Willis and Thomas what the relationship is between history and representation; they emphasized that there is no singular truth, so many histories exist within our population. We can never have the central or the “right” truth, for there is no universal truth. There’s no agency, no independence, when we aren’t given the freedom to know multiple truths, for there’s no common history that is equally shared among all backgrounds on earth. That correlation between history and representation continues to affect our agency.
Weschler makes note of that personal individuality that he sees played out in Vermeer’s paintings. After providing examples of Vermeer’s works exhibited in museums around the world, Weschler writes: “[Vermeer’s] paintings all but cry out, this person is not to be seen as merely a type, a trope, an allegory” (783). There’s a sense of personality distinct to each woman painted: Head of a Young Girl presents more modesty than Girl Asleep; the woman depicted in Milkmaid seems to have no purpose compared to the industriousness of Young Woman with a Water Jug. It is easier to itemize the people in paintings because they’re physically separated frame to frame. How does this division, a separation between people, become reinforced in the Tribunal? Weschler notes that “…the entire Yugoslavian debacle has been taking place in a context wherein the Other, even one’s own neighbor, is suddenly being experienced no longer as a subject like oneself but as an instance, a type, a vile expletive…” (Weschler 783). This experience of “the Other”, this discomfort that arises when we must acknowledge someone (or something) head-on, and dictates our relationship to their “type” of people.
But if the subject, whether it be on canvas or on trial, “is standing in for the condition of being a unique individual human being, worthy of our own unique individual response” as Weschler suggests, then would Frederick Douglass’s photographs have achieved their goal? Can one man change an entire mindset against his people? This is asking a lot from some photos. But Douglass knew that to decimate black stereotypes, it would require a public rewiring of the “symbolic and the cultural imaginary [realm]” (Aperture 28). He used photography “…[to register] that “the Negro,” “the slave,” was as various as any human beings could be, not just in comparison to white people, but even more importantly among and within themselves” (Aperture 28). By personalizing photography, Douglass exposed an ignored history and humanized a race, just by using his individuality.
Gates says that “Douglass, through images of himself, [attempted] both to display and displace: he is seeking…to show in two dimensions the contours of the anti-slave…[intent on erasing] the astonishingly large storehouse of racist stereotypes that had been accumulated…of anti-black imagery” (28). Gates touches on displacement but he needs to go further. He asks what Douglass was trying not to represent in his photographs, but Gates leaves the question unanswered, going into an explanation of Douglass’s objective to make African Americans “God’s image in ebony” rather than “animal-like caricatures” (28). While true that Douglass is trying to not represent African Americans as animals, Gates leaves his reader a bit unsatisfied. Weschler, however, never even addresses the possibility that Vermeer, in his paintings, could be exhibiting just some histories. In viewing Young Woman with a Water Jug, Weschler notes that “[Afrikaner poet and painter Breyten Breytenbach] noticed the map tacked to the wall over the woman’s left shoulder; Breytenbach jabbed a finger at the little boats delicately daubed on the painted map’s coastline. ‘That’s [the Dutch East India Company] leaving right now [for Cape Town]!’” (Weschler 781). At first look, the painted map is merely fanciful decoration, a detailed aspect of the painting; however Breyten Breytenbach’s comment suddenly grounds this work in history, on an event that would send trading boats to Africa to start colonization and the slave trade. Was the inclusion of the map in the painting a subtle attempt on Vermeer’s part to make social commentary, or was it just a detail that could perhaps bring that story to life? It’s unclear what Vermeer’s intentions were, and Weschler doesn’t attempt to uncover, analyze, or further question the purpose of the ships.
At the Tisch plenary lecture, photographer Hank Willis Thomas shared his work, a video entitled “The Question Bridge Project”. In it, Willis Thomas interviewed a large cross section of self-identifying African American men: fathers, businessmen, gang members in prison. Willis Thomas’ project exposed the diversity that exists within a group. While those interviewed were all African American males, that identity did yet did not define the entire group, for there was variety in their experiences and viewpoints that separated individuals from one another.
Looking now at Weschler’s analysis of Vermeer paintings to expose the Yugoslav war crimes against humanity, Frederick Douglass’ intentional use of photography to humanize the African American, and now Willis Thomas’ video project that illustrates and celebrates the radical diversity among a group, we can see how the artists’ changing representations of their subjects, in turn, changes how the subjects are viewed. The Other can be seen as human. The individual’s humanity can extend to the group. And, finally, the individuals in the group can be seen for the diverse people that they are. Vermeer’s paintings, the photographs of Frederick Douglass, and Willis Thomas’ video project illustrate how art can both reflect and instigate this widening world view.
All of which brings us back to Hamilton, Broadway’s famed hip-hopera.
The stories that inform America’s beginnings are populated by white men: George Washington, Aaron Burr, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson; they are, of course, the active agents of the events that led to both our country’s freedom from England and to our sustained government practices. But Hamilton creator and Puerto Rican-American actor Lin-Manuel Miranda found an under-(w)rapped (pun intended) individual in that history: Alexander Hamilton. This founding father was born impoverished on a Caribbean island, immigrated to America, and worked his way up the ladder of success, becoming a military hero, a lawyer, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, primary author of the Federalist Papers, First Treasury Secretary, until he was shot down by Aaron Burr in a duel.
Although the founding fathers of our country were white, Lin-Manuel Miranda created the musical so that every role in Hamilton (with the exception of King George III) is played by a person of color. Like Gates’ essay about Douglass, what is Miranda, a Puerto Rican actor who originated the title character, trying to represent? The audience sees African Americans, Latinos, essentially non-white actors bringing our country’s story to life, allowing people of color to experience and see themselves in a story they’ve been left out of for centuries.
By creating Hamilton, Miranda shows us that the stories we’ve been told of our country’s creation have been whitewashed by history. If we see Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, entitled to great respect as they are as white men, don’t we need to do the same when we see people of color in those roles? And, once we see people of color in those roles, can’t we imagine them acting on their own agency? Having and creating their own history? And that their history would be integrally tangled with the white history that we are taught? The beauty of Hamilton is that it not only gives people of color the opportunity to see themselves as agents in a history they were previously denied, but it gives white people the opportunity to share this story and see people of color as something other than the Other. Miranda brings to Broadway the significance of our past, and a reminder that other narratives exist and are important. In the same way that Douglass’s photographs allowed his humanity to extend toward an entire group, Hamilton’s success has extended to its cast and has helped open up dialogues in the Broadway community about how to creatively cast shows with people of color. The deliberate re-racing of this particular history adds another layer to that remembrance: that we cannot and should not exclude those who live in our country now. The reconstructing of our social duty to the Other emphasizes the importance of our duty to social reconstruction.
Weschler, Lawrence. “Vermeer in Bosnia”. Anthology for Further Reading, 778-785. Published 2004.
Gates, Henry Louis. “Frederick Douglass’s Camera Obscura”. Aperture Magazine Vision and Justice, 27-29. Published summer 2016.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel. Hamilton: An American Musical. Atlantic. 2015.
Willis Thomas, Hank and Willis, Deborah. “Love Overrules.” Tisch Day of Community, 21 October 2016, Town Hall, New York City, New York. Lecture.