February 11. Day of Absence. All day.

On February 11 ..., I’m asking us all to stop — for a day, for a moment even, and imagine our country, our world, if we woke up one day and all the artists and cultural workers had disappeared.It’s a day to wear white because it’s a day without colour. Artists govern colour.It’s a day to be silent because it’s a day without music, writing, speeches. Artists produce music, writing, speeches.It’s a day to stop spending cash because without artists, money has no meaning — the designs on our coins and our paper money were created by artists.It’s a day to worship silently, without music, or pretty clothing or the Bible, because artists are the vehicles God chooses to express the glory of His creation and Himself.It’s a day of reflection, of discussion, of absence in honour of the creative spirit that our society insists on beating down, on disrespecting, on crushing.

--Nicolette Bethel, "Day of Absence: 11th February"

This was the call that went out last year when the Day of Absence in honour of art and artists was born. The concept caught on, and sparked discussions that have continued into this new year. The concept has also been criticized, roundly and thoroughly, by a number of people. Not least among the criticisms are the ideas that, as Idébu observes elsewhere on this blog "In art just as in life, respect must be earned," and, as Ward Minnis has discussed at length, "The metaphor of absence is in error. We do not need any more absence. We need to make our presence felt." Perhaps the most naked disagreement comes from Patrick Rahming, who says: "It is sad that we have reduced ourselves to behaving like a bunch of unionists. Jobs are NOT what being an artist is about. Noone owes any of us a living."

Clearly, the very idea of absence is a problematic one, and the one that has generated the most response and reaction. I'm not going to try and defend it. The criticisms of the metaphor are fair. But I'd like to explain where the idea came from, and why I think it's still the most appropriate idea for me, here, on this day.

The Day of Absence concept is derived very explicitly from the critique of American racism expressed by Douglas Turner Ward in his play of the same name. It's not an original concept by any means; it's been used in various ways throughout the USA to draw attention to specific situations of inequality, injustice, and so on. As Ward has very rightly observed, it could more predictably be applied to the place of Haitian immigrants and -- even more appropriately perhaps -- their children among us. Others have questioned whether we need more absence when the arts are already so very invisible in The Bahamas.

My answer to both stems from the same root.

Last things first. Just because the arts are invisible in The Bahamas, it doesn't mean they aren't here. Nor does it mean automatically that they aren't good enough to muster consideration. Invisibility and absence are two different things -- as Ralph Ellison and Douglas Turner Ward appreciated very well in their responses to American racism. Like Ellison's Invisible Man, art exists, but is ignored. To appreciate its existence, to appreciate its importance and its true place in the society, let us imagine a world where it is removed altogether. Turner Ward's proposition in his play was to invite people to think of what would happen if the invisible became the non-existent. The result: absurdity and chaos. I'm suggesting that we do the same thing with our approach to the idea of the arts.

Now onto the first idea, and the most crucial. Ward Minnis has argued that the "Day of Absence" concept is not only misleading, but disrespectful to the truly oppressed in our society:

Turner Ward’s play was written and performed during the height of the civil rights movement and reenactments of its premise usually involve issues of race and class. This is how it should remain. There is no legitimate comparison between the civil rights struggle and the plight of artists in the Bahamas. To take the idea of absence from Turner Ward and deploy it in behalf of Bahamian artists, some of whom are doing quite well thank-you-very-much, in the twenty-first century does his play and the struggle of black people in the United States and in our own country and other oppressed peoples around the world a profound disservice. The suggestion that there is even the slightest correlation between the two is historically inaccurate, and, let’s say it, down-right offensive.

--Ward Minnis, "Trying to Make a Dollar Out of Fifty Cents"

The trouble is, on many levels, I agree. This is one reason why, after our debate at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas on January 12, 2010, I didn't talk about it; how can one whine about not getting respect in a country that is so well-off that the most pervasive health issues stem from overeating, and where we hoard our wealth and refuse to share it with our neighbours who need it far more?

But to leave it there and walk away from the idea altogether is to deny the reality in which we have created a world without sensibility, without public admiration for beauty, without place for art.

The idea behind the Day of Absence is political because all of the above are connected. The oppression shared by Haitians in The Bahamas (and the Americas), and by African-Americans in the USA in the pre-civil rights era is the same oppression that makes the arts irrelevant to us today. They all stem from the same origin: the need to justify the widespread enslavement and maltreatment of a group of people in order to create an empire or a world for oneself. The first is the economic end-product of that original sin, if you like. The second is the political end-product. The third -- the place, or lack of place, of art in our society is the psychological by-product.

In order to enslave an entire "race" of people, you have to displace them, you have to deprive them of their possessions, you have to deprive them of their rights, and -- most insidious of all -- you have to deprive them of their sense of who they are. The last is, like art in The Bahamas, invisible, and so it is the hardest of all to counteract. You have to tell them, and tell them so they come to believe it, that they have no culture, that nothing good ever came out of their country of origin, that they are fortunate to have been enslaved, so that they might learn culture and art from the enslavers. (For those who find this language offensive, I apologize, but if you know some other way to say it without lying about it, I'm interested to see it).

So while on one level, it is absolutely true to say that there is no connection between Bahamian artists and African-Americans in Turner Ward's play; we are not materially or politically deprived, except by choice. But by denying the importance of art in our society, by making no place for it in our nation, by imagining that anything else, and everything else is more worthy of spending tax money on, by ignoring those of us who are artists, by assuming that everything that Bahamians produce is automatically mediocre, so that (if one's an artist) all that one aims for is mediocrity (because it's more "authentic") or (if one's an observer or consumer of art) one equates excellence with "foreignness", we are enacting ad infinitum the most basic core of our original enslavement--the idea that we are worth nothing in ourselves, and that everything that is good or right was taught to us by those who enslaved us.

So the idea isn't about Bahamian art. It's about art, and what we Bahamians think about it. Forget the idea of respect for artists, etc; I agree with everything you say, and agree that to respect for individuals must be earned. I'm talking about art itself, and whether we consider ourselves good enough, whole enough, human enough to have it in the first place.