By Marshall Smith
In 2015, Idyllwild Arts Academy faculty member Chris Wegemer, with the full support of IAA administration, launched the annual Art in Society symposium. The purpose was to involve, instruct and engage IAA students in a discussion of their roles as artists in an evolving society.
At the heart of the annual event is an examination of how the work of artists — visual and performing — contributes to and changes society. Rather than a picture of an artist sequestered in a garret creating art in isolation, Art in Society is intended to posit the picture of artist activists engaged in using their art to contribute to society. Questions such as, “How does art make the world a better place?” “In what ways does art influence society?” and “How should artists relate to others in the world?” are raised and examined.
Social issue and social justice artists are convened each year from a broad variety of disciplines to discuss their career arcs, and whether and how their art has made a difference. Each year, the symposium centers around a different theme.
This year, Art in Society chair and author Eduardo Santiago has assembled renowned authors, actors, performers, musicians, visual artists and filmmakers to discuss gender fluidity and how it is changing societal attitudes.
Santiago chose the subject matter, believing it to be one that has always been around but only now has become part of an open societal discussion and one that is sparking both public support and resistance. “People, especially now, want to think society, the world and the universe are static,” said Santiago. “But they are not. They are constantly changing and evolving. People who think they are static oppose social change. I think it is the responsibility of the artist to effect social change.
“And, it is the same with gender fluidity. It is infinitely fluid.”
“Gender fluid” is a gender identity that refers to a gender that varies over time. A gender-fluid person may at any time identify as male, female, neutral or any other non-binary identity, or some combination of identities. Their gender can also vary at random or vary in response to different circumstances.
The Art in Society symposium is a full school experience. “None of this would happen without the participation of the entire school,” notes Santiago. “Everything stops for this.”
As to why gender fluidity is now being openly discussed, Santiago said he has a theory. “This has always been around and the former [U.S.] administration made us safe to show our faces,” he said. “Now that may change. People who are hostile to anyone who is different may feel empowered to take us down.”
Santiago noted that for older people, even for some IAA students, this subject is new, unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable. But it is also why, he said, it is important to discuss. “I welcome the opportunity to examine these issues,” he stressed. “Selfishly, I like to teach the things I have to learn.”
The first panel takes place at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 17. The second, after a break for lunch, is at 1:15 p.m. Both are at the IAF Theater (Bowman) on the IAA campus. They are free and open to the public.
Included are IAA alum Katherine Kearns, who was raised by a gay father, actor and Art in Society panelist Michael Kearns. Katherine made a documentary, “A Family Like Mine,” that was aired on KCET public television in Los Angeles and featured in film festivals. Also speaking is local artist Karla Leopold, whose art focuses on changing societal dynamics and psychic wounds and injuries, and Dr. Joseph Nadeau, director of the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus.