Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Citizens of the Imagination

What do W.B. Yeats, Pablo Neruda and Vaclav Havel have in common? They all were poets who held political positions in their countries. Yeats and Neruda were senators in Ireland and Chile respectively and Havel the president of Czechoslavakia. Imagine—a poet as President!

How do poetry and politics mix? It’s not an obvious marriage. But I do believe that the arts serve to keep a society honest, tuning into the pulse of the people and the heartbeat of the culture, alert to what’s riding in on the wind and signaling the needed change of the moment. In some Ghanaian villages, the master drummer is an important part of village politics, the one who knows all the rhythms needed for each ceremonial occasion. The chief may make the decisions (often in consultation with the drummer), but it is the drummer who passes it along to the people and activates changes through ceremony and ritual. (A similar dynamic in the role Sofia, James and I play as music teachers in our school—we know all the kids and we know the songs for every occasion. I often have felt that we deserve an administrative title—and salary!)

In typical governing bodies, Law and Economics fill most of the seats in the Senate. But shouldn’t we reserve a few places for Art to have its voice? Decisions, after all, have aesthetic, cultural and spiritual consequences. Might we consider these as part of the economics and ethics of any proposed change? Shouldn’t these factors enter into the conversation, be represented in the Senate?

Enter the poets, the artists, the musicians, the dancers. A strange idea to some, but really, what could be stranger than the current group of politicians the Republicans have put forth? A dancer might not appear to have much to contribute to the budget discussion, but then again, discussing it through dance could be a graphic way to illustrate certain points. (There’s a brilliant TED talk on just that subject, about using dance instead of powerpoint—see: http://www.ted.com/talks/john_bohannon_dance_vs_powerpoint)

The democracy I envision requires not only 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 Yeats, Neruda and Havel, we can use actual poets and artists in positions of power, but equally important, we need the arts to take their seat in the Senate of our imagination. We need to lift art out of its second class role as entertainment, diversion, hobby, and raise it to a force of powerful transformation, not just teaching the arts as a special set of skills, but inspiring a constant aesthetic engagement with the world.

Schools have the potential to train our future citizens to speak the language need in the new House of Representatives. But as they currently exist, they are mostly obedience camps for children to learn to beg, heel, roll over and play dead. When arts education is allowed in the door at all, it is often just another tedious attempt to learn the mere proper techniques, duplicate the established canons, perform to please parents or gain prestive or provide entertainment at football games.

A genuine arts education begins by challenging the passivity of rote learning and inviting children to dig down past the right answers to the unanswerable questions. Good arts programs help children develop habits of astute observation, active engagement and skillful wrestling of imagination into form. It is 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 face, skin, gender or upbringing are so radically different, but whose thoughts and dreams are so astonishingly the same.

As mentioned in the last posting, we need to cross the borders of differences that keep us apart to reach the land of shared humanity. To be a passport holder, you must qualify as a Citizen of the Imagination. All children are by birthright and temperament such citizens until we drill and kill their curiosity and dull them down to bland obedience. The arts are one of many strategies to keep them alive and vibrant—let’s start training them now. 

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