Monday, February 16, 2015

"Go, Romeo!"— Art and Social Change: Part I

In my life before this blog, I used to write articles. Some I sent to Orff magazines, but many lay unread in some folder on the screen or file in the cabinet. I wrote them simply to try to organize my thinking about whatever I happened to be thinking about. It was a good practice, but sometimes I think I should re-organize them and put them between two covers to complete the process.

I’m reading a book now with a few excellent chapters about orality and literacy and peeked back into my old files to try to find an article I once wrote about that subject. Alas, couldn’t find it, but came across another one that called to me. My daughter Talia is looking at art as a vehicle for social change in her 4th grade classroom and lo and behold, there is my article on that very subject! A different take than her focus, but I found it worthy of a re-read nonetheless. So until I collect these in a book, here it is on the blog in two parts. Enjoy!

A friend and I once made a short movie for our college film class. We were both novice Buddhists and were proud of our loose haiku-like narrative accompanying images of peace and serenity. Our teacher, however, was less pleased. “There’s no conflict. No conflict, no art.”

We were indignant and felt self-righteously misunderstood in only the ways that 19-year olds can. We privately accused our teacher of being so Cartesian in his need for opposition and shook our heads with pity that he failed to grasp the peaceful principles of Buddhism. Little did we realize that Buddha’s very story is a classic tale of conflict. A privileged prince is raised to continue the royal line, sheltered from all unpleasant things. He convinces his chariot driver to sneak out of the palace and encounters a sick person, a hungry person, an old person and a corpse. Confronted for the first time with injustice, suffering and death, he is filled with self-doubt and eventually leaves his wife and family to seek the truth. After traveling down several false paths, he finds his moment under the Bo tree and begins a teaching that will influence the life of most of Asia for the next 2500 years. One story of conflict— big results.

As my friend and I matured in our Buddhist practice, we also came to realize how many conflicts raged within our own breasts as we faced our inner demons in meditation retreats. There may be a “peace that passeth all understanding” at the end of the spiritual rainbow, but the path is filled with unending bumps and rough places. Transformation seems to require that we stumble and fall repeatedly and pay our dues with bruised knees and broken bones.

Whether it be the art of living or the art of art, our film teacher was right—no conflict, no worthy art. Art begins with a conflict that demands to be heard and moves through various levels of transformation in accordance with our strength and courage to face it. It often begins with the refusal to accept that which is handed down to us. Had Huck Finn meekly submitted to Aunt Polly’s attempt to civilize him and sat in his assigned seat obediently doing his schoolwork, there would have been no story. Had Tita resigned herself to Mama Elena’s dictum that the youngest sacrifice marriage to care for her, there would be no mouth-watering conflict to drive the story forward and enliven both the dinner table and the bedroom. Like water for chocolate, things need be brought to a boil before we taste the sweetness.

Society in all its many faces—from Dickens’ London to Hussein’s Kabul to Achebe’s Nigeria—asks for compliance with convention. Without this implicit agreement, the mail couldn’t be delivered nor the trains run on time. But what is efficient for the machinery of society can sometimes by troublesome to the soul. And this is where art begins.

Take marriage, that most necessary and universal of custom to continue both the family line and species’ survival. For most of human history, the arranged marriage is the preferred mode— a mere matter of convenience, economics and ethnic purity. Enter love, that troublesome emissary of Soul and suddenly Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria, are sneaking around in defiance of all accepted protocol—and we, the reader/viewer are cheering them on. They remind us of our own deferred dreams, our own secret loves and our own crazy ideas that we keep wrapped up tightly away from society’s gaze. That’s what art can do for us—speak our deep longings that would be ridiculed at the pub, ignored in the workplace, or considered dangerous by Homeland Security.

Schools, parents and therapists keep working to make sure we’re normal, but most people who have made a difference in this world have had raging conflicts lighting the fire of their passion. It’s hard to imagine as we listen to Mozart’s pleasant harmonies to reduce stress during rush hour, balance our biofeedback, make our children smarter, or set the mood for romance that such beauty came forth from inner turmoil. As his biographer Maynard Solomon reminds us, Mozart came “to disturb the slumber of the world.” Where the day to day world prefers things at a mild intensity, the dial set to background, Mozart and indeed, every artist worth his or her salt, asks for something different—listen, stretch, attend, feel. Don’t sleepwalk through this life with the comfort of easily learned routine.

The artist committed to creation can never rest. No sooner is one painting finished or novel signed off than the next one begins. An advertising man can invent one clever slogan and live off the fat of his paycheck for the rest of his life. The composer can write an entire symphony and still have to get up the next morning and write the opening theme for the next one. The creator is driven to observe the world and respond in perpetually new ways.

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