I’ve been chewing over a problem—an especially tough esthetic-political-spiritual problem—and I wonder if you can help. Let me explain.
Whether you look at the news or at the new TV season, at the local multiplex or the art gallery, at the nightclub or the bookstore, there’s no denying that our culture is generating boundless imagery of depravity, destruction and terror.
Many of our artifacts try to tame this onslaught by containing the horror, wrapping it in neat packages: dozens of TV series dish up a menu of torture and terror, but happily, the brave and calm forces of law and order almost always contain evil by the end of the hour. I like to read mysteries of a somewhat less vivid character, but I think I like them for the same reason: by the end of the book, the bad guys have been exposed and the good ones carry wittily on to solve even more challenging conundrums in the sequel. It’s reassuring, life as a problem that can always be solved.
But even when iniquity is domesticated by the end of the hour, the slice and slash images and vivid descriptions remain in our minds; and even though we know they are fiction, the daily news gives them an air of plausibility. Our culture is building a storehouse of terror, and many of us are scared out of our wits.
One antidote seems obvious. “If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal,” said Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in the 18th century. I don’t think it likely that the consumer cultural industries will start churning out images and stories of healing with the same industry and appetite as they manufacture tales of pain, but the rest of us have the opportunity to make a U-turn whenever we wish. In the talks I am giving over the next few months, I want to put this challenge before artists of all types: how can you replenish our stock of positive images, helping us to stop scaring ourselves into oblivion?
Good idea, hm? The only trouble is, esthetically, it’s not so easily accomplished. First, as every manual on playwriting and screenwriting emphasizes, conflict drives drama. Just to run the engine that holds our attention, there has to be a problem at the center of every story. Conflict along the way doesn’t preclude a happy ending, but too many happy endings and you get the Hallmark Channel, risking emotional diabetes from a sugary overdose.
Beyond the centrality of conflict, though, is our appetite for narratives of suffering and redemption, which drives everything from the lives of the saints to a great deal of pornography. Perhaps the classic illustration is Dante’s amazing Divine Comedy. Inferno (Hell) is the first and best of the three parts, featuring amazingly inventive depictions of torments suffered by the damned, each commensurate with the individual’s own bad acts. Next comes Purgatorio (Purgatory), which is less engaging, but still possible to read. But the last book, Paradiso (Paradise), a tour of the nine spheres of heaven, each with its own exquisite character and saintly inhabitants, is such heavy going that unless read as an act of Christian devotion, it is almost unendurable.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt that the act of converting our enormous cultural storehouse of self-terrifying material to its self-supporting equivalent will be a project of devising positive plot lines and happy endings. That just isn’t going to hold our interest. Instead of focusing on content, I think it will be an experiential process, in which artists engage more and more people in the direct, first-person experience of creative social imagination. I see people getting a taste of real citizenship and agency by using themselves more fully, by devising their own creative responses to the types of problem situations that are at the center of dynamic art works. I think the way to counter an overload of mass-manufactured self-terrifying imagery is to multiply the self-empowering experience of creativity, so that people have a stock to draw on—not of readymade stories, but of knowing, as Rebbe Nachman said, that we have the power to heal, fix and choose life.
This is the type of cultural action I write about in my new book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, due out later this month. (More about that when it’s published.) But I’m not sure there aren’t other ways. What do you think?