Artistic Freedom: The role of art in political conflict, and the Indiana boycott


UPDATE: Since this piece was published, Wilco has restored their originally scheduled Indianapolis show and plans to “donate a portion of the proceeds from this show to organizations fighting to build on the progress we hope this change makes in Indiana and beyond.”

I’ve written for Treble for around four years and not once have I purposefully used my association with this site as a political platform, nor do I intend to do so today. But there are three particular aspects of my identity that force me to have a little heart-to-heart with musicians, music fans, and other folks working within the music industry.

For starters, I’m a Hoosier. not by choice, exactly, but a Hoosier all the same. I grew up in Houston, Texas, earned my undergrad in Lexington, Ky., and then wound up working in Indianapolis, Ind. in 2011, half-accidentally. In 2013, I relocated to Bloomington, and will be staying here for a pretty long stretch as my partner completes a Ph.D. candidacy at a major university. I mention all these things because, although I’m an accidental Hoosier, I’ve always felt accepted and embraced by this state. This is important because…

I am a publicly queer, polyamorous individual. Again, this is not something I bring into my writing very often, because I’m here to talk about music, not myself. But I identify as a queer, polyamorous, white cis-gendered man. (Editor’s note: Since writing this piece, A.T. has publicly identified themself as genderqueer/non-binary.) Yes, living in Indiana. And the oddest thing about it all is, until the RFRA was signed, I felt pretty damn comfortable here. There’s a vibrant liberal community in this state and I have to say say I’m lucky to have mingled with the Hoosier circles I’ve encountered, especially…

The musical community of Indiana. My entire life has been shaped, in part, by the artistic cultures I’ve been involved in and surrounded by at whatever locale I wind up in. I’m an increasingly radical liberal who has spent my twenty six years on Earth jumping from red state to red state, and I’ve always felt protected by these artist safe havens, even during trying socio-political times. That’s just as true of Indiana, especially Bloomington, as it is of anywhere else I have lived.

I mention all this because I feel it’s important to clarify some details about Indiana’s recently signed RFRA and the best way for musicians to respond. It’s important to mention that the state government’s handling of this bill (which — intentionally or otherwise — allows legal discrimination against LGBTQ* folks and other minorities within Indiana) has been a complete and utter clusterfuck. I take some issue with the idea of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act to begin with, but I especially can’t get behind a law that makes me feel unsafe doing business in the place I call home. If you disagree with that sentiment, you’ve probably landed on the wrong article and might want to skip back a few pages on your browser.

But if you are also outraged with the absurdity of Indiana’s RFRA, I speak on behalf of all reasonable Hoosiers when I say thank you. But what I need you to understand is that ‘Reasonable Hoosiers’ is a pretty large chunk of my state’s demographic breakdown. It’s true that Indiana is very much a politically conservative state (partially due to our high cases of gerrymandering), but to assume a Republican government means the majority of Hoosiers are hate-mongering bigots would be fairly ignorant in its own right. In fact, even a fair number of Indiana Republicans have had reasonable reactions to the massive national outrage over Pence signing the RFRA. Representatives within the government have already made some pretty decent strides to fix the bill and make it resemble other RFRAs that limit discrimination and the mayor of Indianapolis (Greg Ballard, also a Republican) has already called for even more action to clarify the bill’s intent. This political momentum follows massive disapproval by major news outlets like Indy’s NUVO and the Indianapolis Star, as well as some major economic threats by the likes of SalesForce, GenCon and the NCAA (as well as straight up action by organizations like Angie’s List.) All the while, grassroots campaigns like Freedom Indiana were working hard to make sure our representatives knew that the majority of Hoosiers do not support this bill. So far, it seems to be working.

As far as that musical community goes? They’re doing pretty well too. A loose collective of Indiana-based music professionals and organizations including Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans, Asthmatic Kitty, Flannelgraph and SC Distribution (who handle distribution for almost everyone’s favorite indie label) released a website called Music For Indiana which encourages LGBT-friendly professionals — from labels, to studios to freelance writers such as myself — to commit to a stance against discrimination by signing an online decree. This statement not only calls for Indiana legislature to recall this RFRA and enact clear legislation protecting the rights of LGBT individuals, but commits that the signed parties “continue to proudly call Indiana home, and… call on others in the arts community to address this issue constructively.” Specifically, they urge artists to keep the resonance of their actions in mind:

“To musicians with events scheduled in Indiana — please follow through and perform. While canceling shows is one way to protest, a greater statement can be made by coming here and using your art to influence the policy debate that is occurring locally. You can insist that the venue you play publicly states that they will not discriminate under any circumstances. If the venue won’t do that, rebook your show with another venue that will. Your performance can be a rally. We need your support locally.”

Which brings me to my point: While many artists and music fans nationwide have contributed positively to the overall conversation by talking down Indiana government and the RFRA, steering clear of Indiana’s vibrant artistic and musical communities only hurts the open-minded Hoosiers that artists should be working to support in these tough political times. When Jeff Tweedy announced that Wilco would be pulling out of their Indianapolis dates, it wasn’t Mike Pence and his cronies that lost the opportunity to come together over the power of music, it was Wilco fans, the majority of which are probably more upset about this bill than Tweedy himself could ever be. After all, he doesn’t live here.

As an LGBTQ* Hoosier, it means the world to me that many of my favorite artists are supportive of my rights and sympathetic to the political struggle currently underway in Indiana. But I’m also a little offended that so many of those same musicians believe the best way for them to contribute is to pull their most meaningful contribution — their creativity and their art — out of the conversation entirely. Isn’t it better to support the right Hoosiers with your art than to protest the wrong Hoosiers by withholding it? Thanks for the support. I mean that. But please have some faith that we’ll tackle this problem. Lots of extraordinary and open-minded musicians, labels, studios and venues call Indiana home; to spur them on behalf of the state’s less… erm… enlightened doesn’t add to the conversation. It just makes it less vibrant.

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