I. Three days before I turn 20, I move to Washington, D.C. It’s August, and I’m here for a semester “abroad” with the UC Washington Program (UCDC). While it’s not international, D.C. is so cosmopolitan that it may as well be on the other side of the world. On my birthday, I bite back homesickness and walk alone to the National Mall. It’s 95 degrees out, but when I arrive I just stand there, sweating, in awe, eyeing the rows of Smithsonian museums. I must go inside but am momentarily frozen from too many choices.
I find solace in the Sackler Gallery. It is built three stories underground and houses Asiatic and Middle Eastern artwork. I chat with a security guard who stands alone in a dark room with a $22 million Rothko and a 600-year-old Chinese bowl. A suspended sculpture by Xu Bing called “Monkeys Grasp for the Moon” is my favorite piece in the museum. Fixed atop the ceiling of the ground floor, linked carvings of the word “monkey” in the script of a dozen languages tumble three flights down into a into a reflecting pool. I walk down, look up and clap my hands in delight.
II. My theater class and I take the subway to Bethesda for a performance of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” We’re studying dramas about political tension, and the syllabus promises nine (nine!) trips to the theater. “Angels” is a famous play about the AIDS epidemic, and the villain Roy Cohn was a real-life figure in New York’s power scene who was in cahoots with our now-president for many years. Part One of “Angels” is three-and-a-half hours long, and it is challenging to watch. We walk out of the theater in a trance — my classmates look like they’ve got the wind knocked out of them, and I’m sure I do as well.
III. It’s late September, and the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors to spectacular fanfare.
An inauguration ceremony for the NMAAHC features President Obama, Rep. John Lewis, Stevie Wonder and Oprah, to name a few. The permanency and unavoidable presence of the building is astounding. Inside, the collection begins in the basement with the planks and nails of slave ships, and the uppermost floor holds artifacts like Prince’s tambourine. The first presidential debate will air in two days, but in the meantime, the internet is too busy talking about Michelle and George W.’s hug.
IV. At a theater in the southeast quarter, I see “Milk Like Sugar,” a view of teenage life in inner cities. The theater itself is positioned between expensive cafes and lines of decrepit homes.
V. All of a sudden it’s the Thursday after the election, and the “Second City” comedians are incredulous, railing about a “Cheeto-faced” monstrosity, and they’re so funny that I almost forget how fresh the material is. A Michelle 2020 poster looms large onset.
VI. My final class meets on a red carpet. We are at the Kennedy Center, the world-renowned Performing Arts Center created by JFK. Crystal chandeliers dazzle overhead. Gleaming marble columns line the gilded lobby. Our motley crew wears bowties, heels and velvet. We watch “A View From The Bridge,” Arthur Miller’s meditation on justice in America. It’s about the perceived threat that immigrants pose to white American identity, and the final scene concludes with a gruesome fight. It is December, and I exit with a pit in my stomach.
I am back home now, and my take-away feelings are of gratitude. Instead of sitting in classrooms, I learned inside the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, the Hirshhorn Gallery, the Renwick, the American Art Museum. Exhibits ranged from contemporary Korean ceramics to morose lesbian portraiture. And all the museums were free — a public education indeed. How lucky we are that this country prides its institutions of history and art, just as it supports its universities.
“How lucky we are that this country prides its institutions of history and art, just as it supports its universities.”
I am deeply unsettled by Trump’s plans to ax the entire National Endowment of the Arts. I understand his calls for government frugality, but this is not cutting off dead weight — it is carving out the heart. To do so would stifle these modes of education and expression, and silence voices that are among the most profound.
On the façade of the Kennedy Center, facing outward over the Potomac, a quote is engraved in huge block lettering. President Kennedy spoke these words in 1963: “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft … And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”
“Arts Abroad” columns catalog Daily Cal staff members’ arts and culture experiences while studying or traveling abroad
Sarah Goldwasser covers fashion. Contact her at [email protected].