Tony Kushner awarded $100,000 prize for challenging status quo

November 29, 2011

Who said great artists must starve? Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, and polarizing political voice, will be awarded $100,000 for “Creative Citizenship” at The Nation Institute’s Annual Gala on Dec. 5 in New York.

The award, co-sponsored by The Puffin Foundation and The Nation Institute, both organizations of particular social conscience, is designated for those who have “challenged the status quo through distinctive, courageous, imaginative, and socially responsible work of significance.” 

In a press release announcing the prize, the organizations explained their choice thusly:

[Kushner has] given voice to the marginalized and explored the most challenging issues of the past fifty years. He has tackled everything from AIDS and the conservative backlash (Angels in America), and the civil rights movement in the South (Caroline, or Change), to Afghanistan and the West (Homebody / Kabul), and the rise of capitalism (Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne). As John Lahr wrote in the New Yorker, “He gives voice to characters who have been rendered powerless by the forces of circumstances — a drag queen dying of AIDS, an uneducated Southern maid, contemporary Afghans — and his attempt to see all sides of their predicament has a sly subversiveness. He forces the audience to identify with the marginalized — a humanizing act of the imagination.”

A closer look at the sponsoring organizations’ social missions indicates Kushner is being recognized for more than work alone. Independent of his art, Kushner is known for his daring political views, especially as they concern Israel. He is outspoken about his philosophical struggles with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he outlined in the book, “Wrestling with Zion,” a compilation he edited that showcases progressive Jewish-American attitudes towards Israel.

In 2007, Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman interviewed Kushner on stage at American Jewish University, where he asked Kushner about his Jewish identity and relationship to Israel. In a follow-up editorial, Eshman wrote:

Kushner embraces uncertainty. “I have very mixed and complicated feelings about the state of Israel as a Jewish American,” he said on Monday evening, “and I’m furious at being represented as this kind of marginal crazy who’s plotting to destroy the state of Israel. I think everybody harbors their own secret doubts, or at least most of us do, and everybody’s afraid to say them, because the orthodoxy is policed with such violence and vituperation.”

Kushner and director Steven Spielberg endured a wave of criticism from some within the Jewish community who felt their film “Munich” stretched too far in trying to humanize Palestinian terrorists, or in trying to insert moral quandary into the minds of Israelis assigned to kill those terrorists.

I asked Kushner why [playwright David] Mamet, among others, finds his position so unpalatable. “It’s because they’re trying to defend the indefensible,” Kushner said. “It’s trying to uphold the reality you can’t uphold. It’s a cartoon version of Middle Eastern politics that almost no one in the state of Israel recognizes. There’s easily 50 percent of the Israeli population that’s progressive.”

I’m not sure of that number, especially in the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, but Kushner was clearly still feeling the sting of “Munich.”

“I can’t feel neutral about the state of Israel because I’m a Jew,” Kushner said, “and I would like to see Israel survive and prosper. I absolutely don’t believe in single-state solution. I believe in a two-state solution. I’ve never anywhere on earth said I believe Israel should be forced to give up its identity as a Jewish state … that obviously wouldn’t work. It would be the end of Israel.”

Kushner’s willingness to challenge mainstream opinion on Israel has earned him the ire of more conservative Jewish minds. His outspokenness on the issue, he has said, has sometimes led to mischaracterization of his beliefs. Last May, a public debacle ensued when the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) voted to rescind an honorary degree intended for Kushner when a board member objected on account of his views on Israel. An outraged public, which provoked scores of media coverage and a pro-Kushner op-ed in the New York Times, helped to reverse the decision.

In this case, however, it is precisely Kushner’s “unorthodox” views that won him the recognition. The Puffin Foundation is devoted to minority and marginalized artists, and provides artist grants to individuals and organizations working on the fringe (in their words: those “excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy”) which coheres with Kushner’s intense focus on civil rights. Likewise, The Nation Institute, a non-profit media organization that promotes progressive ideas (among their online and print publications is The Nation magazine), syncs well with Kushner’s liberal politics. Upon learning of the award, Kushner said, “Like most progressive Americans, I depend on The Nation magazine for serious, scrupulous, courageous reportage and analysis; I’m very proud to have been published in its pages and proud of my association with The Nation Institute.”

He added: “To be a good citizen, much less a creative one, is a tall order, and while I hope I can say I’ve never taken the blessings of citizenship (however abridged these remain, despite recent advances, for the entire LGBT community) for granted, I feel certain that I’ve achieved at best a rudimentary level of sufficiency regarding the obligations that come with the franchise. I can only add that since this will make me feel terrible every time I fail to be a creative citizen, it’ll be a goad to step up my game — since citizenship, like playwriting or the violin, requires practice, practice, practice.  I’m so grateful to The Institute and the Puffin Foundation for their wayward taste and misguided judgment, and I plan to keep blushing for several years to come.”

According to the release, Kushner is the 12th recipient of the prize. Past honorees have included the environmental activist Van Jones, human rights lawyer Michael Ratner, “Nickel and Dimed” author Barbara Ehrenreich, professor and anti-death penalty advocate David Protess and labor activist Dolores Huerta.

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