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Art for Our Sake: Lessons From Hull-House

Poets, artists, writers help us imagine solidarity and re-make the world.

Lisa Yun Lee

(Photo courtesy of WPA Illinois Art Project/Library of Congress)

To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”

Hull-House residents witnessed how art helped build a common culture between people, even as it helped explore differences.

So reads a sentence in the platform for the Progressive Party’s first national convention in August 1912. The founding principle of the Progressives back then was ending the domination of our nation’s politics by business interests.

The party’s expansive vision, however, also included demands for women’s suffrage, a national health policy, social insurance for the elderly and the unemployed, farmers’ relief, workers’ compensation, a constitutional amendment to allow for a federal income tax, and the regulation and registration of lobbyists. 

There were also several measures for what the party called direct democracy,” including citizen referendums, primary elections for state and federal nominations, a provision for recall elections, and the recording and publication of congressional committee proceedings.

Some of these demands now seem self-evident parts of any democracy, while others are still considered radical almost a century later. This reminds us why it is critical to remember that challenging the status quo and injustice takes not only courage and conviction, but also creativity. Envisioning a different and more just world is an act of cultural creation, of beauty and wonder.

Each and every one of the above-mentioned visions for how citizens in the early 20th century might transform society were the result of creative and innovative thinking that took place, for the most part, not on Capitol Hill, but in the free press, through grassroots organizing, via popular education and on cultural fronts – sports, literature, poetry, art and music. These were the spaces where dissent was encouraged, where innovative thinking and playful experimentation flourished, and where peoples’ imaginations and dreams were allowed to foment. 

Jane Addams, the co-founder of the Hull-House Settlement in Chicago who in 1931 would become America’s first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, not only attended the Progressive Party’s founding convention, but also seconded the nomination of Teddy Roosevelt for the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate. Addams’ expansive vision for how society could be transformed, however, didn’t privilege electoral politics over her efforts at the Hull-House Settlement – a place where cultural and creative rights were as important as political and economic ones. 

In addition to organizing unions and fighting for legislation for the eight-hour workday and immigration rights, the Hull-House produced avant-garde dramatic plays and sponsored basketball teams for boys and girls. The Settlement offered literature and language classes that reflected a commitment to internationalism, as well as a plethora of education opportunities including art and music lessons, cooking classes and home economics workshops. 

Hull-House residents witnessed how art helped build a common culture between people, even as it helped explore differences. At that time, more than 80 percent of Chicagoans were foreign-born, and more than two-dozen ethnic, racial and linguistic groups lived in the Hull-House’s Near West Side neighborhood. Irish, Italian, Arab, Swedish, Mexican, Greek, Scottish, Chinese, Polish and Russian immigrants, as well as African Americans and others, mingled, organized and built community at the Hull-House. 

Addams insisted that making and creating culture should be valued in a world where there was so much un-making and destruction. An ability to galvanize a diverse group of cultural workers to produce ideas that challenged the status quo was one of her great gifts. Artists, writers and intellectuals like W.E. B. Dubois, Upton Sinclair, Harriet Monroe and Charlotte Perkins Gilman debated and dreamed as they ate dinner together in the communal residents’ dining hall at the Settlement.

Hull-House reformers insisted that cultural, intellectual and manual labor were important to the building of the foundation of a democratic nation. A refusal to accept the world as it was – combined with a vision of what it might be – meant challenging normative ways of thinking. And doing this required making the arts and culture accessible and engaging to as many people as possible. This was the art of social change.

On January 20, 2011, a group of conservative Republicans in Congress led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), calling themselves the Republican Study Committee, revealed a plan to cut federal funding for the arts down to zero. This plan would eliminate both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two of the major funding sources for artists and intellectuals in our country. 

Arguments against this drastic plan have focused on the role of the arts and culture as an important engine for economic development. While the economic arguments are both true and compelling, I suspect that those committed to sustaining the status quo know and fear the power of the arts and culture to change the world. 

Poets, artists, writers and other cultural workers create the engines for our imaginations and build the framework for our dissent. They provide new ways for us to communicate across lines of difference. They help us find creative ways to imagine solidarity and to re-make the world. 

Progressives today should learn from the progressives of yesterday. More art! More poetry!

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Lisa Yun Lee is cofounder of The Public Square, a nonprofit organization that fosters the exchange of ideas about cultural, social and political issues. She also is working on a book about Theodor Adorno for Routledge.
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