(Part two of an unpublished article I wrote some eight years back).
As the title suggests, art is a force for social change without necessarily intending to be so. The artist by nature is not content to wholly accept things as they are, be they a social convention or a way of seeing. He or she develops a habit of thinking, responding, imagining, creating and re-creating. A person who is constantly thinking, constantly responding from the heart and seeing with the soul is a person who does not easily obey orders and accept whitewashed propaganda. He or she may care more about art than politics and choose not to get involved in group action— any group, no matter how good its intention or honorable its values, is vulnerable to creating its own type of stifling conformity and mass mindedness and the artist by temperament may be inclined to resist this. But the role of the artist is to provoke, to question, to prod and that slows down the manufacturing of consent that much politics depends on.
Mass culture depends upon statistics, stereotypes, averages, both making people too much alike and too much different. The soul as revealed by art is always both one of a kind in its particulars and universal in its qualities. To take but one example—a good novel explodes the convenient lie that the people not living in our neighborhood are strange and wholly other. By hearing their story, we cannot dismiss them as less than human, an exotic tribe or collateral damage. When a Richard Wright or Arundhati Roy or John Steinbeck present characters that live and breathe, exult and grieve, rise above human foibles or fall from grace—in short, people like us—they offer a powerful antidote to the 6 o’clock news.
Poets can do the same. Anyone who has read Rumi or Basho or Lorca and paused to wonder how people so distant in time, place, temperament and upbringing can speak so eloquently to our own feelings and experience knows that there is indeed a universal human spirit beneath our constant squabbling and it is worth our attention to cultivate dialogues that bridge differences instead of wave our flags of divisive self-righteousness around.
I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once said that art is the reminder that we are not alone. What is worth noting here is the diversity of the company we keep. The town of the imagination that I live in has young black women, dead white men, Sufi mystics, beat Zen Buddhists, state senators, revolutionaries, insurance salesmen and itinerant vagabonds all living together on the same block. My library and recording collection is an international marketplace crossing borders of space and time. Hafiz sits down to dine with Gary Snyder, Thoreau and Mary Oliver have a little chat, Dickens writes letters to Zora Neale Hurston, Schubert, Miles and Ravi Shanker trade tunes with each other.
Such exchanges don’t only exist on an imaginative level, but in real time as well. Louis Armstrong, who grew up a poor black person, never got past 5th grade and began his career in a reform school, sang the songs of Cole Porter, that upper class privileged white man who attended Harvard and Yale. When we hear Satchmo transform the tune “You’re the Top” from a clever song to a soul-stirring performance or hear Billie Holiday take Porter’s “Love for Sale” and tell us the story of her life, we witness a mingling on the artistic level historically prohibited on a social level. Without Porter—or Gershwin, Rodgers, Berlin and dozens of other songwriters outside their social group— Louis and Billie surely would have found something else to sing, but it might not have touched the nerve in American culture the way that these songs did. Without Louis and Billie, that repertoire would have remained a footnote in American musical history, the novelty acts of Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. When society’s restrictive lines are crossed in art, something wonderful often happens. And for the alert listener, it is not too far a leap to consider that maybe those lines can be crossed in life as well.
A case in point. In Ken Burns’ documentary “Jazz,” he tells the story of a young 19 year old law student named Charlie Black who happened to attend a concert by Louis Armstrong. He was mesmerized by the music, moved in a way that he had never experienced before. As his insides began to stir in the way that only art can stir them, he was struck that such power and beauty was coming out of a horn played by a black man. His notion that blacks were inferior, fed to him by his upbringing, met the inescapable truth of the man in front of his eyes. Years later, he found himself one of the team of lawyers who ruled against segregation in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education. Had he not stumbled into Louis Armstrong that fateful night, that decision may have turned out differently.
Art can often serve as the antennae of society, tuned into the next social change that needs to be made. A mark of a healthy society is one that encourages arts as a means to keep it honest. If practicality and economics are to own most of the seats in the Senate, it seems important to at least reserve a few seats for Soul to have its voice. When decisions are made, the aesthetic, artistic or spiritual cost should be factored in and for that, they need the voice of art.
If we are to take this possibility seriously, we need to begin the process in those training grounds for future citizens, the schools. As they exist, these institutions are mostly obedience schools for children to learn to beg, heel, roll over and play dead, Where it is allowed in the door at all, arts education is often just another tedious attempt to learn the proper techniques, duplicate the established canons, perform to please parents or gain prestige or provide entertainment at the football games.
A genuine arts education begins by challenging the passivity of rote learning and inviting the children to dig down past the right answers to the unanswerable questions that fuel the engine of creativity. Good arts programs help children develop habits of astute observation, imaginative interaction and skillful wrestling of imagination into form. Arts in the schools can be the place where children see the stories the mainstream media doesn’t show on the news, hear the tales kept out of the newspapers and history books, meet the characters whose skin, face, sex or upbringing are so radically different, but whose thoughts and dreams are so astonishingly the same.
The democracy yet to be not only requires informed citizens, but experienced citizens, people who have had their assumptions challenged by a novel, their breath interrupted by a dance gesture, their world stopped by a painting or their life turned upside down by a piece of music. Following Neruda and Yeats and Vaclev Havel, we can use actual poets and artists in positions of power, but perhaps more important, we need the arts to take their seat in the Senate of our imaginative life. We need to lift art out of its second class role as entertainment, diversion, hobby and raise it to a force of powerful transformation.
Mozart’s once radical music is now muzak for a less stressful commute, John Coltrane’s tumultuous saxophone probings have been reduced to Kenny G’s smooth jazz. Before one can fully experience the comforting arms of art, one must fall down and skin a few knees. And that means risk, questioning, doubt, not only learning the arts themselves, but the forms of artistic investigation.
As I told my students yesterday at the Martin Luther King Day celebration, a community event that delivered its message through songs, hip-hop dancing and poetry, “Your job is to go out in the world and cause trouble. Not an aimless, selfish, indulgent kind of trouble, but the right kind of trouble.“
Maybe that’s one definition of art— a way to guide you to the right kind of trouble.