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Art’s Role in Moving a Culture from “We/Them” to “Us”
I suppose if you spoke with anyone in this room, they would tell you that they have lived through more than one period when it felt like the wheels were coming off the bus, that the country was in for ruin. Every past generation would say the same. And in every instance, those with differing positions and experiences would see opposing reasons for crisis. That realization aside, I also believe that, looking backwards, history reveals inflection points, those moments of transformation that mark permanent shifts in culture, politics, and economics. Think moon landings and Vietnam, the development of the Internet and the downfall of the Soviet Union, the emergence of social media and that of a global pandemic. I believe we are living in such a period, one that will forever change the terrain of the future. The emergence of artificial intelligence will be one factor, urban flight by those with means, another. A changing vision of work and tidal demographic shifts. Of course, even if I’m right, we won’t know what our future will look like, what the lasting impacts of these transformational times might be. Nor will we agree on the causes.
I do think that a dominant inflection point we are experiencing is what David Brooks (someone I don’t often agree with, which is entirely beside the point and exactly the point of this talk) has labeled "shallowization," where collectively we are struggling against forces that seem intent on making us become shallower versions of ourselves. Shallower. The word “shallow” comes from Late Latin superficiālis (“of or belonging to the surface”), thus sharing its root with “superficial.” It seems an appropriate word to apply to a range of contemporary phenomena. Brooks identifies two primary drivers: technology and politicization. He argues that we are inundated with shallow opinions via bytes and images while simultaneously everything is enmeshed in predictable partisan outrage. I particularly worry about the impact of these simultaneous drivers, for the ubiquitous presence of mobile technology and the addictive nature of social media have worsened the tribalized nature of politics. This point of conjunction has also contributed to a greater belief by many that what they “believe” is right rather than just different, and increasingly they act on those beliefs regardless of how they might hurt others. The result: we have grown distant from one another. It so much easier to “like” an image, post a meme, or attack another from the comfort of our couch. The junction of technology and politization has not just worsened this outbreak of tribalism, it is contributing to an upheaval of tradition, an epidemic of loneliness, and a destruction of compassion. I worry about the effects on all of us, even among those most engaged, informed, and critically attuned. My worry grows to despair when I consider the impacts on young people who quite literally possess brains that are still forming while in the midst of an era when what never used to pass as normal is normalized and lies are vaporized as “alternative facts” and critical thinking is a lost art.
So that took a dark turn in a hurry. If you heard my title, you must be thinking, “This wasn’t supposed to be a Doomsday talk.” Indeed, it isn’t.
Brooks’s remedy to “shallowization”: "flee to the arts."
It's this remedy I want to explore. Not only can the arts keep us from succumbing to the shallowest, the most superficial versions of ourselves, they possess unique traits that can help us heal the divides we have created. For if we fail to see beyond “we/them” views that have been created by others from opposite extremes with self-serving agendas, then culture, country, maybe even democracy is doomed. We have to find the means to move beyond we/them selfishness to “us” acceptance. I happen to be a writer, but the ideas I hope to express apply to all the arts, and I encourage you to think about music and paintings and pottery, and—name-your-medium—as you consider these ideas. Flee to the arts. What might we learn if we do?
Now I am not naïve. As such, it is necessary to insert a disclaimer. The arts are certainly not immune to shallowization or politization. Indeed, in the current climate of culture wars, the arts are regularly thrust front and center. Yet I do steadfastly believe that the arts cannot just offer refuge, they can suggest paths to healing.
So let’s talk about what is unique to the arts. Brooks writes, reflecting something we have all experienced, that art allows us to return to experiences we all had as children: “becoming so enveloped by an adventure story that you refuse to put it down to go have dinner; getting so exuberantly swept up in some piece of music that you feel primeval passions thumping” inside your blood; “encountering a painting so beautiful it feels like” you could walk into its frame.
This escapist quality of art matters. We want to be transported. Humans have been unified in their need to tell stories since they developed the ability to communicate. But escape is only an access point. Art calls to us with these siren songs, takes us out of our lives and into other worlds and other visions and other experiences, then it challenges us to consider what we find there. Brooks goes on to write: “Rather than to get “lost’ in it…it’s more accurate to say that a piece of art has quieted the self-conscious ego voice that is normally yapping away. A piece of art has served as a portal to a deeper realm of the mind. It has opened up that hidden, semiconscious kingdom within us from which emotions emerge, where our moral sentiments are found—those instant, esthetic-like reactions that cause us to feel disgust in the presence of cruelty and admiration in the presence of generosity.”
Perhaps the most vital quality of the arts and their ability to open Brooks’s “hidden, semiconscious kingdom within us” is this: the arts require us to be participants. Forget the philosophical debates. The book may exist on a shelf, the episode of your favorite series may be saved on a server, the music may be in a queue, but until the human interacts with art, the exchange on which it is dependent is incomplete. Somewhere, the book you have never read has shaped another’s life, given them comfort, provided them hope, offered them direction. Some other book has done the same for you. It “spoke” to you, as the arts are prone to do. Sometimes your participation is literal.
More than just presence, the arts require engagement and they feed an elemental aspect of being human—they require the use of our imagination. Some of this is because of the form art takes. Some of it is literally neurological. MRI studies, for example, reveal not only how many different parts of the brain “fire” while listening to music, researchers are beginning to understand the relationship between hearing music and the emotions it evokes. Similar studies have important implications for reading, in part because the brain is asked to complete so many processes so quickly from different regions in order to comprehend meaning. An example you have probably experienced is how the artful, precise description of a smell within a story can trigger a specific personal memory in a manner similar to how smells themselves take you back in time and transport you into emotion. When reading, in a manner not so dissimilar to listening to music through headphones, art has a direct conduit to our brain. There is no gap, no filter, no gatekeeper, just the music or the story. In than instant, we live wholly inside the art. We become lost in it in that way when you go to the movies on a summer night and see a film set in winter dark, you must readjust when you step out of the theater. And, speaking of movies, it is the very engagement of the imagination required by reading that made the novelist Paul Coelho observe: “The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader. That’s why we go to the movies and say, ‘Oh, the book is better.” His comment is far less about the merits of written narrative vs. filmed narrative as it is a reality of our role as participants in written text. The writer, like the visual artist, paints with specific details and impressions; they require the reader or viewer to form the final picture and the full story. The story contained in a book requires your presence; ironically, your “social” media feed does not. And hence, while both can be dangerous, their dangers are of entirely different natures.
When it comes to art’s demand for participation, beyond the neurological, there is the creative process itself. Artists in every medium with which I am familiar talk of being transported during the act of creating—lost in a creation or performance of a song or dance or a painting. In a book, in a painting, in a piece of music, we are immersed in a purposefully fabricated universe that is at once reflective of the experiences of the artists who have created such work, and because of the nature of creative expression, that expands beyond their experiences. All artistic creation realizes moments of “spontaneous combustion” where the unexpected arises from within the work. Artists may have different interpretations of how or why this happens but I have never met a working artist who does not regularly experience the joy of surprise, the thrill of discovery, the sense of having been a conduit of something beyond self. It is the juice we are all chasing. In those moments, artists have harnessed subconsciousness. It has fueled their work. Some will suggest they have tapped into a collective unconsciousness. Should it be any surprise then that you, a participant, glean some aspect of the magic that occurs, occasionally, alongside the hard labor of creating art?
The idea, even the word, participant, is insufficient. It cannot convey the depth of transformative power the arts can possess or the trait that can allow art to heal cultural divides, for a central part of artistic output is its ability to allow us to enter, often literally, points of view that are not our own. Sometimes it is not discovery but intentionality that creates mechanisms for exploring other perspectives. For me the phrase I attach to this idea is, “trying on other skins” which is the title of a poetry collection by a dear friend of mine, Rita Keifer, a former nun who, when I was a young teacher and fledgling writer, probably saved my career and my sanity by her natural mixture of intellect and compassion. Her collection by this title is a series of narrative poems, each from the point of view of a different person. She purposefully embarked on a journey of perspective; she tried to learn with all of her heart and all of her mind how another being experienced the world; and then another and another. In doing so she literally acted upon a broader element of art, that by being asked to see from other points of vision allows us to practice compassion to such an extreme that we may come close to empathy. When we look at a painting, we are not only asked to see the painting but to enter the artist’s vision and imagination. When we read a novel narrated in the first person, we are required, subconsciously, to enter that narrator’s mind and memory. When we read “I, I, I” for long enough, we begin to incorporate that “other I” into our “I” experience. When participating in masterful work, a narrative voice, a painter’s perspective, a lyricist’s revelation is absorbed into our being. Once lived, whether through art or through life we will never lose that experience. We have, quite literally practiced the compassion required to try on another’s skin. Perhaps, in our best moments, we carry the lessons of such compassion out of the art, out of our bodies, and into the world.
As a reader I have lived in different centuries, on different planets and in alternative worlds, inside slavery, inside women’s bodies, endured wars, solved crimes, given birth, experienced death. I have inhabited the minds of killers and of saints. Whether inside a created world or this literal one, I am firmly in agreement with David Brooks when he says, “I will happily spend all day with a person who disagrees with me on every issue, but who has a good heart—one who has the ability to sympathize with others and to respect their woes, longings, and dreams. I want nothing to do with the person who has a cold, resentful heart—no matter their beliefs.”
Part of the ability of art to transport us inside these other skins is because of a mechanism common in all art forms: their varying uses of camouflage. Innovative artists often employ approaches that allow us to gain access to experiences and ideas we might not otherwise encounter by a bit of subterfuge. Think about it. How often have you found yourself tapping your feet to the beat of a song regardless of, maybe even oblivious to its lyrics (even as you sing along!), considered an idea because a comedian made you laugh about it, or, as I chronicled with some of my own “alternate lives” inhabited another's point view within a first-person narrator. Art can offer a sneak attack in this way, disarming us, taking us into places and experiences and ideas we might not otherwise enter. Have you not gasped out loud while reading a book, been moved to emotion by a song, a painting, a photograph, a film? Witnessed your body react in ways your brain cannot immediately comprehend? All art is a constructed thing, as such it is carefully, often purposefully structured and it is always compressed—the story must fit within a book, the painting within a frame—because of the realities of physics. This compression creates a mechanism for enhancing the experience. Many of us likely know stoics who take action rather than exhibit emotion when life demands action, those who can process emotions in ways not always visible to us, yet often they are the same people in our lives who are quick to display emotion in the presence of art. The crafty mechanics and innovative structures of good art provide useful tools for breaking down barriers.
While art can be purposeful in calling out injustice or making a political statement that can contribute to divisions, its more frequent role is in bringing people together, sometimes in wonder, often by inspiration, nearly always in dialogue. This is true in large part because the best art exists at the intersection of intellect and emotion. We react to art with our brains and our hearts, often simultaneously. It requires both. IQ and EQ. As a result, our relationships with art are deep and lasting. Think of the first book you loved, or the first album or cd you bought, recall the song that was the soundtrack to the first time you fell in love. These pieces of art live inside of you as surely as your heart or your liver. While talking heads and digital influencers and politicians, all sporting agendas, manipulate rhetoric and images and they steal songs and pilfer other’s experiences to spark emotional reactions, art creates space within us for reflection. It is a reactive flinch that redefines intellectualism as a dirty word because it is a reaction spawned by fear and inadequacy. Reflection, by contrast, asks for an embrace rather than a flinch. Reflection opens a window to understanding. Reaction absent reflection is inherently dangerous and myopic. The novelist George Saunders has said, “The way we talk to one another defines our culture.” Reaction is a first step to what we too often experience in the present moment where we talk about other people rather than with them.
We will never cross the divides that separate us if we can’t talk to one another. Beyond the unique qualities I have tried to outline here, art may be a place to start a conversation. While we each have our own artistic tastes—you may like different music than I do—we are united by our broader love of it. And sometimes, of course, artists themselves reshape the world by crossing so much expanse of “taste.” I might hope that you read beyond the bestseller list or listen beyond the top-40 of any genre chart, but those artists who bridge traditional divides can become entry points to conversations of another sort, as evidenced by the economic impact of a Beyonce or a Taylor Swift. The arts, and the larger blend of intellectual pursuit that is foundational in them, have the profound ability to shift and shape culture because they reflect change, offer commentary, capture emotion that mirrors observer’s ideas, questions, and experiences. They can fuel cultural movements as a result. What was once viewed as radical, with time and exposure and increased participation, becomes normalized. The rock and roll that shocked parents in the 1960s not only captured much of a generation’s view towards war and civil rights, it melded into the mainstream and spawned other genres. It did so as surely as hip hop did twenty-five years later, becoming the soundtrack of another generation. The movements of visual arts can define a time period and reflect its history and culture, but they also, over time, enter into a growing body of style and expression that will shape the present and the future.
It is the future that should concern us most. As parents and grandparents and future parents. As readers and listeners and viewers. As artists. If we must flee to avoid the contentious exasperation of these current times, better that it is to the arts. And in the arts, we might just find a way forward.