Every day we wake up and try to strike a balance between getting our own lives lived well and the reality of life. There is always something going on that is larger than us: unrest sweeping through Libya and Egypt; an surge in the capitalist system that is creating an ever larger gap between rich and poor; deficiencies in health care or the complete lack thereof; environmental degradation at a scale that has made Canada an international disgrace.
When taking a tally of all the vital things — health care, the economy, public education, national and international security — the arts can surely seem like the easiest entry to strike off the list of items that are the most in need of funding and support.
To tell you the truth, had you caught me a few years ago I very well may have fallen in with the group who feels that the arts are a frivolous expenditure. That they are, perhaps, unnecessary. And this from someone who has played music, danced, written, drawn, and loved theatre all her life.
Entertainment, after all, is a fair-weather privilege . . . isn’t it? Why, in the wake of issues that are literally a matter of life and death, of wellbeing or suffering, does it matter for countries and communities to foster and support art and creativity?
If you’re a regular Art Threat reader you are very familiar with the work we cover. These diverse political statements stretch across mediums — at times they are subversive, sometimes blatantly to the point. At the very least, protecting and supporting the individual’s right to express themselves in their medium of choice. It is a matter of free speech.
But there’s more to the arts than just free speech (and as an extension of that, support for democracy). The arts are also vital in helping our economy to thrive and in strengthening community.
Both business and science rhetoric encourages innovation. That innovation is brought about by creative thinking. Most innovative businesses encourage unusual forms of brainstorming and go out of their way to take people out of their element to freshen their trains of thought. In the sciences, it’s been shown that by taking a step away from quantitative reductionist thinking and exploring the imaginative, surreal realm of art, a researcher can be opened to make entirely new discoveries. The power of metaphor used by those best adept at poetry and language has allowed scientists like Einstein to see what no one else has ever seen, and renaissance men like da Vinci to create a movement which literally revolutionized the quality of life in the world.
As physicist and novelist Alan Lightman wrote, “Metaphor in science serves not just as a pedagogical device, but also as an aid to scientific discovery. In doing science, even though words and equations are used with the intention of having precise meaning, it is almost impossible not to reason by physical analogy, not to form mental pictures, not to imagine balls bouncing and pendulums swinging.”
The power of the artistic process lies in its ability to help innovators grasp the implications of the processes they desire to implement.
When talking of creativity and innovation it is natural to bind the trio of art, business and science. We need scientific innovation to propel business forward, and innovation is necessarily paired with creativity. Creativity comes from inspiration, which often comes from appreciating other people’s artistic expressions.
Art and politics tend to have a more jarring relationship. In our history, novelists have better criticised government and its implications than nearly any other type of artist. Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, Harry Harrison’s Make Room Make Room and George Orwell’s 1984 are everyone’s favourite gateway to critical thinking on government control and future population issues.
“It is quite possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess —” Noam Chomsky has said, “that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”
By supporting the individuals inherently inclined to create (or “the artists” as we like to call them), we foster a culture in which innovative thinking is encouraged. Through their unusual vision we can draw our own alternatives in science, business and yes, even politics.
Comedy can be used like a slap in the face to make an audience realize there is even an issue in the first place (such as shitharperdid.com and the Colbert Report); visual arts can be used to open an audience’s eyes to the true weight of an matter (like Banksy’s works on the Israeli-Palestine wall); music can strike a chord with your heart that carries through generations (think of Imagine by John Lennon).
The arts are about bringing people together (I think some call that community), they are about opening our mind to alterative possibilities, they are about listening and learning about history and context, and they are about appreciating what it is we’re all fighting for in the first place. An artistic society is one that values the other, that hears all voices, that appreciates and fosters mastery of skill, that discusses problems openly and not only creates inspiration by which we can create solutions, but which proposes them as well.
Most importantly, if we want this innovation to have the positive impact on our “real lives” (the business, science, politics trio) we must admit, and even celebrate, that the “arts” are not just for artists.
Writing music, fiction, poetry and even stand-up comedy is not just about creating something to share with people — it’s a process by which we learn to assess our surroundings, our reactions to those surroundings, and then put them into context and language that can be expressed to others. It is for this reason that strong arts programs in elementary and high schools are vital for every strong, healthy, economically sound country.
Growing up in a tiny town in north Idaho, every one of my grandfather’s aunts and uncles could play an instrument (accordions and violins, mostly). Not a single one was an ‘artist’. These were men who used horses to fall trees and turn them into mining timbers, and women who butchered elk on the kitchen table. These were hard people who drank and swore and lived recklessly at times. Every account of Silver Valley history tells of how each Saturday, everyone would take their turn on the stage to play music for the crowd in the community hall. Through dancing until four in the morning, they created a community with a rich history of having each other’s backs, caring deeply about their neighbours, and forgiving them for their faults.
The arts, quite simply, are not about “easy grant money” or amusement and entertainment: entertainment is a by-product of the fact that we create and imagine in order to realize ourselves and to explore the issues in our lives, be they personal or political.
And maybe, just maybe, art – like Terje Sorgjerd’s The Mountain – also helps us remember why we want to create a society in which we are healthy, protect our environment, and share a simple but beautiful existence with the people we love.