Marc Bamuthi Joseph is an interdisciplinary artist, performer, poet, curator, educator, and cultural strategist whose body of work focuses on social action and community revitalization. He is Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I had an illuminating conversation with a mental health professional about the nature of race-based hate. I initially characterized racism as a pathology, as in, “There’s got to be some kind of test a person can take before they’re admitted to the police force that measures a dangerous level of racism…that officer, those men in Georgia, they’re psychopathic, they’re sociopathic…”

She patiently, clinically corrected me: “At a minimum, racism is not a psychological disorder because it can be taught. You can’t teach a psychopathy.” So if the racist can be a healthy individual, it stands to reason that the society and the social codes therein are the underlying issue.

Racism is a symptom of a sick society. A psychologist diagnoses an individual who then does the work to self-stabilize or heal. Similarly, an artist diagnoses society. An artist gives society the tools it needs to see itself, all the good and all the possibility, and also all the dis-ease from which it might heal. In 2020, converging crises have forced us to think about public health from a virological standpoint while we stand in the debilitating mental crisis of racial trauma. In our near future, we will all bring the PTSD of these concurrent crises to the public square.

I believe we must deploy artists as leaders as we collectively heal from the trauma of the pandemic. Without inspired, cohesive political leadership, it’ll fall on cultural leaders to design and model our post-COVID-19 healing apparatus. Artists must help us re-learn to feel alive in public.

For an individual body, integrated healing is an intentional approach, involving a reciprocal relationship between patient and practitioner that deftly combines a wide array of therapies aimed at improving one’s total health.

Now extrapolate that to social ill…

Our post-COVID body politic still runs the course of a pre-COVID racial timeline. We are living the pathway of a pre-COVID climate response, a pre-COVID heteronormative patriarchy. This particular epidemiological sickness is chaotic and catastrophic—and an opportunity to address the total health of the body politic, with art and culture centered as medicine. The chamber of commerce is thinking about the economic crisis; the humanitarians and their allies have to think about our impending mental health crisis. The psychology of re-entry.

America is sick, who is designing the healing apparatus?
Who is on the integrative healing team?

I am in “the demo” of arts workers impacted by COVID. I have lost revenue, been furloughed, and cancelled premieres. This is the season of loss, and adaptation. My entire livelihood is built on bringing people together, and I am personally struggling with a fear that it’ll be years, not months, before I feel comfortable around people again. I am personally implicated in the stakes of what we in the culture sector do next.

Before these identity markers, I am human, and crave connection: safe, compassionate, and expansive human connection. As the country’s traffic lights switch from red to yellow, arts institutions should be in the crossroads of American culture, directing us how to walk toward healthy, embodied connection. Artists should lead us in the literacy of post-COVID social interaction. Rather than producing shows, I advocate for arts institutions to intentionally produce cultural health, funding creatives, mental health professionals, urban planners, economists, and sociologists to intentionally design the landscape of our social reintegration.

I am an artist deployed by the nation’s performing arts center as the Vice President of Social Impact. I believe that since racism is structural, anti-racism also has to be structural. If we believe in systemic racism, then our ambition is to be systemically anti-racist. I’ve often performed the one-off role of change clarion at theaters across the country, but most of these institutions really needed the role of a permanent, empowered change agent. Cultural institutions have often veered to episodically diverse or thematic programming when they actually needed social action plans that utilized a humanistic and creative lens. This is why my recommendation to the Kennedy Center this past Summer wasn’t to launch new programs, it was to use and understand certain programs as part of a systemic theory of change within the organization and among its multiple communities. Symbols to inspire us, but systems to sustain us.

What we announced on July 9th is a system of eight intersecting vectors of work that we’re going to implement immediately, and are committed to growing for the next 3-5 years. It is a system that invests millions of dollars into our local creative economy, focuses on programming through the lens of public health, ties Black performers to anti-racist organizations, and supports the work of cultural leaders in a range of disciplines. It is a system that initiates a new pipeline of composers into mainstream presentational spaces who work within the classical realm and are also highly informed by the social contract. Just about every arts organization in the country has said they’re going to do something; few if any have announced what they’re going to do. None have articulated a layered but legible philosophy or unified theory that reads as a system of principles, a structural philosophy that is accessible, inspiring, authentic, and pragmatic.

Our country’s financial resuscitation should be tied to our methodologies and relationships to the social contract. In order to do this we have to deploy artists in our country not just to make art but to intentionally make culture. We must use our arts centers not just to show art, but to make community. The currency of arts organizations and the work of artists aren’t some extra side hustle things that America does; right now they are America itself, and that value should carry over into how we build the economy for whatever it is that’s coming next for us all. We can rebuild the structural economy and moral economy at the same time by integrating artists more soundly into our systems-thinking, and boldly invite philanthropists, patrons, and government to follow suit.

A figure in black with bright purple arms reaches inward with a pencil and paintbrush to create shapes and lines inside the body of the figure.

This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.