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Why MacDowell NOW? Ayad Akhtar on Art and the Art Residency in a Troubled Democracy

Q&A - February 18, 2021

Ayad Akhtar wrote in MacDowell Studio in the late winter of 2013. (Joanna Eldredge Morrissey photo)

Ayad Akhtar wrote in MacDowell Studio in the late winter of 2013. (Joanna Eldredge Morrissey photo)

To continue our series asking MacDowell Fellows to reflect on our moment in history and what role an artist residency might have to play in society, Executive Director Philip Himberg spoke to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar. Akhtar is a two-time MacDowell Fellow, and author of the recent novel, Homeland Elegies. He also serves on the board of the Yaddo artist residency and is the president of PEN America. (The Q&A below is edited from that longer conversation.)

Philip Himberg: I have spoken with a range of artists about the role of artist residencies such as MacDowell, and am curious as to how you perceive their unique function in the ecology of artist support. Do you feel the artist residency has changed, needs to change, that anything about its structure needs rethinking, as our world is in flux?

Ayad Akhtar: You know, we don't live in a society that really values the arts in any kind of collective basis, and we certainly don't have the governmental support for it. And so some of these residencies, Yaddo and MacDowell being the two gold standards, perform such an important service for American artists. I think they're essential – I really do – and they've been really critical for me in my own career and my own life. I found that pivotal moments of reflection and soul-searching and productivity have come from my time at residencies.

PH: When you think of your younger self, say the first time you went to a residency, and your more mature self now, is there a difference in how you perceive what it was like to choose a retreat setting early on in your career, and what the experience is now? Is there a difference?

AA: It was key for me. I mean I met so many amazing colleagues and people who would become friends, and also artists I admired. I think it was the first time that I got to be in a community of folks who were, you know, trying to make this work for themselves – really super-talented people who were struggling with being artists in America. We traded battle stories, but not just. It was also important to be in the presence of people who were doing it, were making it work somehow. I think it's a rite of passage in a lot of ways for American artists. I wouldn't say all American artists do, but I think many of the most serious American artists have gone through these experiences and have bonded around them. It's an important secret history in American arts life.

PH: When you depart a residency such as Yaddo or MacDowell and you think back on the experience, what percentage of time did you choose to remain in isolation with your work, and how much time did you give to what you just described as the battle stories or the cross pollination of conversations? Is it equal or does one take precedence over the other?

AA: For me I think it was always dinner. Dinner and then after dinner, but the day was for the work. In the morning I would run in, have breakfast, and leave right away. I want to get to work right away. A working lunch, which is so wonderful – to have the basket and all of that and just keep going. Take my little nap in the early afternoon. Eventually I’d get myself ready to go to dinner, and at dinner time really have the opportunity to connect. At MacDowell I always made sure that I was sitting at a different table as often as possible, so I didn't get stuck in the same circle. Then the readings after dinner by the fireplace were really, really key.

PH: How important was it when you were younger to have a practice where you could use that alone time? Did you always have a regimen working, or is it something that you developed over time?

AA: I think I've always been really disciplined and maybe to a fault, if anything. The struggle for me has maybe been learning to recognize that unstructured time is often just as important as the structured time.

PH: Do you believe there exists a responsibility among artists across disciplines to participate in the political aspects of our society and of our democracy? Is there a pull or a tug, or perhaps a resistance for yourself and for people in your world to get involved?

AA: I want to meet the audience and the reader where they are, so to some extent, the politics of the moment are part of where we are. It's the mind space of the culture. The daily clatter, at least during the Trump years, was a substantial part of people's days. And so, my last book [Homeland Elegies] really dove right into that, but it had less to do with the belief or the faith that somehow writing about the politics was going to shape the politics. But I do have the faith that reflecting the time and the texture of the time is an important duty – in my opinion – of my own work as an artist. I am also somewhat suspect of having too strong a point of view politically because I think that it can get in the way of being able to see clearly when it comes to trying to depict other lives. The example that I always use is Shakespeare. We would never know if Shakespeare was a royalist or not, or if he was a Catholic or a Protestant, or what his views on property rights were or what his views on anything were because he so fully inhabited the consciousness of the character that he was writing. I think that for me is the ideal and so sure I have my politics, but they shouldn't affect my work to the extent that it would start shaping how I see people.

PH: Are there examples in history of times where you feel that artists have in any way, shaped or catalyzed change, a time and place where artists led? Is that something that you think is real or imagined?

AA: I think it's real. I think it's maybe more common in other cultures. Certainly in European culture, artistic movements have had significant impact on social change. I think there have been artists who have moved the needle in this country. But artists in this country are always a little bit at odds with the dominant prevailing discourses. We're a country of so-called self-made folks who do things and don't think things. The making of money I think is the expression of American vitality and I don't think anything competes with that. In this culture, to make it as an artist is to get your own American Express campaign. That's the measure of really making it. It's not changing anything; it’s ascending to that throne of financial success. I just I hold it all in sometimes bemused, sometimes depressed, and at arm's length and just sort of know that's what it means to be an artist in America.

PH: This is an interesting moment for you. You've already won a Pulitzer but this latest book has gotten huge attention. Does it change your relationship to the world and your audience?

AA: I find myself for the first time in my career asking myself ‘What are people going to want from me next?’ I never asked myself that question. I've always just written what felt like I needed to write. I’d follow this up with something completely different, then something different than this, and then a play, then a book. Now the response has been from some so rapturous and so profound that I find myself wondering if people are going to be disappointed if I'm not able to muster a similar sort of work that enraptures in that way. I will see what the result of this is. It's been thrilling. I had no expectation. I just had to write the book. It's a difficult book. It's complicated and nobody's quite sure what it is. I'm not sure what it is, but I had to write it. I didn't know if it was going to be anything or if it was going to fall in a forest without anybody hearing it. I think the pandemic laid bare some of the underlying dysfunctions in the society that made people much more willing to countenance the perspective of the book.

PH: One of our recently articulated core values at MacDowell is elevating equity and making sure all artists have access to the program. We know there are swaths of artists in this country who may feel that it's not a place that they would feel comfortable or maybe not even know about. Where is your thinking in the world of elevating equity in the world of cultural institutions?

AA: It can be so pivotal and so career-defining for a young artist to get access to that world. There's obviously these sort of cultural codes within the art world, whether it's the visual arts world or the publishing world. All of that stuff is stuff you have to get used to. It’s just one way or the other, but I think having access to a place like MacDowell can be defining. I was always kind of amazed when I would show up that there was an amazing mix of both recent grad school grads and Pulitzer Prize winners. It was always amazing to see the mixture of those cultures and those experiences. The further that MacDowell and that Yaddo can go in that direction, I think the better.

PH: There's been some talk about President Biden rethinking how the federal government supports or doesn't support the arts. There's a push to a Works Progress Administration model that needs to happen, in theatre in any case, maybe across all art forms. Is that something that resonates with you or something that even feels possible?

AA: I think it could be amazing. Theatre is obviously struggling and we're going to need to support it to make it viable. A lot of people are going to just have to change careers if support doesn’t arrive. What that program could look like and how serious Biden or others would be about funding a program that would have enough juice to make a difference is the question. You can forgive me for being a little cynical about whether that will actually materialize. I would certainly welcome it. The regional theater, in a way, is an infrastructure for the kind of thing you're talking about. Obviously the legacy of the WPA is amazing. Something was different about our collective relationship to some of those things back then. The WPA was before television, and theater had a different presence in American culture. I think it would be great. I'd welcome the opportunity to participate if it ever materialized.

PH: I want to talk about your critical eye on our country, and how much it's shifted or changed in the last few years. What is your level of cynicism and how does it affect the work you do?

AA: I don't see us taking the real problems very seriously. I think that we are very good at finding opportunities to pat ourselves on the back. The fundamental questions facing the republic are ultimately about the usurping of power on the part of what I would call the aristocratic class, which in our era is the corporate order. We're living in a corporate totalitarian order and are so preoccupied by our individual rights that we are failing to see what the real problem is: that we are beholden to a political system that doesn't allow us any say in the velocity of its appetites or the nature of the world that it is creating for us. What we're now seeing in the capital markets is really profoundly disturbing. We’re seeing a shift in wealth that is increasingly baked into the system. Those who don't have assets are going to never have assets and whatever symbolic representation we are able to muster for ourselves is not going to right that more fundamental illness. It's just not. I'm somewhat hopeful that we have an administration that at the very least understands the nature of the issues. There are voices within the administration that understand. Whether or not we're going to get any kind of meaningful structural reform around these things is another story, and what I worry about is that bloodshed may be the only way that we get any kind of meaningful reform. Guys like Ray Dalio, who runs Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, are talking about it. Dalio is saying that the biggest danger for our society is wealth inequality because it's going to create a historical upheaval. I think that's coming. We seem to constantly be missing the forest for the trees.

PH: MacDowell is taking advantage of an investment made in 1970s that now means the campus can renovate a large visual arts studio. How do we reconcile art and capitalism, understanding wealth's very positive influence in supporting artists and the places where they make work?

AA: That’s a great question. I think it's in some ways the only question and it seems to me, unfortunately, that the only answer in this time is endowment – it’s capital – that the extent to which the organization is capitalized, it can actually meaningfully participate in the education, the sustenance, the continuation of a tradition of making art, of contemplation, of reflection, of some sort of freedom, intellectual and imaginative. Supporting that is more important than ever. I think that the charge that places like MacDowell and Yaddo have, which is to not demand anything of their artists – in our 24/7, when even our fugitive moments of attention are monetized – is in some ways no more important and revolutionary an act than to provide that kind of time for people. MacDowell’s doing the best they can and they're doing a pretty damn good job.

Author, actor, playwright, and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced, is the author of American Dervish, a coming-of-age novel that was a 2012 Best Book of the Year at Kirkus Reviews, and is an award-winning screenwriter. His latest book, Homeland Elegies, was named one of The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2020.

Find all Why MacDowell NOW? essays here