This is the first part of the text of my keynote address offered at the Western Pennsylvania Arts in Education Partners Resident Artists Conference in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, 16-17 May 2007. There’s a link at the end you can use to download the whole text in PDF format.
I’m working on a community arts project that involves a diverse group of artists from all over the country. It started in Appalachia, where local economic development agencies’ solution to unemployment was to build new “Supermax” prisons, on spec, to create jobs and income by importing prisoners from urban states with overcrowded prisons. Many others have had the same idea: in this country, we’re building fifty new prisons each year to house the largest prison population on the planet, more than seven million souls inside, on parole and on probation. So theater makers, filmmakers, musicians and writers have come together to gather the testimonies of prisoners and their families, guards and their families, policy makers, victims of crime and others whose communities are affected, using art to surface what feels like an important story that has gone largely unnoticed.
I’m writing several essays about the project based on interviews of my own. Last week, I talked with Maurice Turner, one project artist who lives outside of Jackson, Mississippi. I called him in Vermont, where he was doing a residency with a high school set up by the state Department of Corrections to provide an encouraging, enabling environment for kids who are in state custody, a rare sort of institution. Maurice told me about an experience he’d had a couple of years ago, at the beginning of his work in Vermont. He and his brother had offered a concert as a way to get to know people. It ended with a song that had this refrain: “Don’t settle for no less than greatness and you’ll be blessed.”
An audience member stood up after the show. Weeping openly, he headed straight for Maurice, who couldn’t quite believe his eyes. Maurice said the man “looked like some kind of a logger, you know, with a plaid shirt and a logger cap, big as a bear, tears running down his face.” The logger said that his father had been a Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan and a harsh disciplinarian to boot. As a soldier in Vietnam, the logger had a close black friend, a man he described as “having my back.” His father disapproved mightily. “That song brought me back to the day my father almost disowned me,” he told Maurice. “I realized that if I don’t treat people with greatness in my heart, that holds both of us back.”
“It’s the same with a lot of kids,” Maurice told me. “You can see that spark coming into their eyes. Pulling the wool away from someone’s eyes,” he said. “That’s what I live for.”
I’m pretty sure everyone in this room knows what he was talking about. And I’m pretty sure that most of us have had the frustrating experience of trying to convey the power and importance of that moment to someone who works in an educational or social service agency or a foundation and spends every day running as fast as possible just to keep from losing ground. So that’s my subject today, the challenge of keeping art—and heart—at the center of our work and our awareness in a society that is busy making a lot of things worse while trying very hard to make them better.
I think we are in one of those liminal times in human history, where an old way of thinking, one that seems secure in its dominance, is actually weakening, beginning to let some delicious fresh air into the stuffy rooms of our culture. I see artists, especially those who choose to work in community, standing at the frontier between old and new paradigms. Stationed on the ridgetop, despite a great deal of fog and dust obscuring the view, we can glimpse the possibilities that lie just over the mountain. But sometimes we don’t believe our own eyes. As philosopher Ken Wilber said, when paradigms shift—when the way society understands and organizes reality changes—it can be lonely and uncertain for people who clearly see the emergent reality. Describing them, Wilber used this phrase: “More depth, less span.” We may not be a majority, but despite much social pressure to keep quiet about it, we know deeply just what it is we know—and what we don’t know.
So what do we know, exactly? I’m going to focus especially on three things: the value of learning by creating, the fact that creativity is key to a healthy society, and the path of happy accidents.
Click here and scroll down to “Talks and Speeches” to download the whole text.