The University of Iowa

Ways to celebrate human rights through performance

September 18th, 2013

Guest opinion by John Manning for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

John Manning

John Manning

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was signed and adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and is composed of 30 articles outlining basic human rights and freedoms.

Two years ago, for the Martin Luther King Day of Service, I attended a workshop presented by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights that discussed human rights in the college curriculum. We were taught about the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, listened to guest speakers and broke into discussion groups.

We discussed such things as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from torture and slavery, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Article 27 states, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Although I found the presentation compelling and inspiring, I didn’t immediately see any direct connection to my field, music. But after some research and thought, I realized that many composers and performers have created works that have some connection to human rights — as did my colleagues in the School of Music.

I concluded that if a concert or a series of performances were to have a theme or convey a message beyond the music, what better or nobler subject is there than human rights? I suggested this to Alan MacVey, Director of the Division of Performing Arts, and he encouraged me to expand it to involve all three units of the DPA (Music, Dance and Theatre Arts) The executive committee approved this initiative and we call it Series on Arts and Rights, or “SOAR”.

SOAR will take place throughout the 2013-2014 academic year and will include performances of works that have a human rights connection. Some will celebrate human rights in a specific or general manner, while others will highlight the challenges that composers, playwrights and choreographers faced who had their own human rights violated or limited.

Each of the three units within the Division of Performing Arts will present special SOAR performances. The School of Music will present a concert Dec. 10, which is Human Rights Day and the anniversary of the signing of the UDHR. In February, the Department of Dance will dedicate its Faculty and Graduate Recital to themes of human rights. In April, the Department of Theatre Arts will be presenting “Slaughter City,” which explores human rights issues.

At 5 p.m. Friday, I will be one of several guests on WorldCanvass, hosted by Joan Kjaer in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum on the University of Iowa campus. The topic will be “The Arts as Vocabulary,” and the show will consist of four segments:

  • Human Rights and the Arts at UI.
  • Performance and Expression.
  • Bearing Witness, Visual Communication and the Power of Film.
  • And The Arts as Actor. The program also will be broadcast over Iowa cable television systems and KRUI radio. The event is free and open to the public.

The University of Iowa has a proud tradition of contributing positively to the community through its hundreds of performances annually. As always, we hope that our audiences enjoy these performances, but we also hope that some of our performances this year make them think about not only their own humanity but also the universality of the human condition.

Just as all cultures share the ability to be touched by a performance, all cultures are entitled to basic human rights. Art helps us celebrate our humanity, mourn our tragedies, express our emotions and makes our spirits soar.

For more information about SOAR events, go to

John Manning is an associate professor of tuba and euphonium at the University of Iowa.