This is the first section of a talk I gave on 19 June 2009 at the National Summit of Ensemble Theaters, meeting at the University of San Francisco. Click here to download the full text.
I’ve just moved back to California, part of a big life-change for me. Whenever I come here, I touch down with three friends in Mendocino County, where I used to live. We have been meeting regularly—monthly when I’m in the state, less often otherwise—for fifteen years. One is a theater-maker like yourselves, another a healer, the third an environmental activist and steward of the land. We are very different, but taken together, our worldview is pretty wide: from the tiniest details of these amazing human bodies with their interlocking complex systems; to our imaginations, both personal and social; to this beautiful blue-green planet, home to an astounding variety of life-forms, including our own infinitely surprising species.
When I arrived on Sunday, the healer was getting ready to leave for a meeting to plan a memorial service for her dear friend, who had died in an accident. As she told me the story, her eyes filled in that way that evokes an ocean of sorrow, all the tears that have flowed through human history. Shaking her head, she posed a question, “How can they still have war?”
It took me a few seconds to leap across the conceptual gap between the highly personal and particular conversation we’d been having and this eternal conundrum.
“They couldn’t,” I told her, “if they felt the loss of each life the way you are feeling this one.”
How could that happen? How could those who make and profit from war be given the opportunity to experience the fullness of loss created by their enterprise? How could they be drawn to reflect on their choices? You could force-march them to the frontlines, or hold their children hostage, but as we have seen in the vast quantity of blood human history has spilled trying to make the other side feel our pain, as often as not such tactics backfire, creating a thirst for more blood and further distorting the lives of those who seek vengeance.
Yet when my friend asked her question, the answer seemed obvious. I invite you to think about it all day. I doubt you will come up with a better way to create imaginative empathy—to remove the Other from the category of inconvenient object to the category of human subject—than through art.
When we play a character on stage, or seated in a darkened theater, surrender ourselves to empathy with a heart and mind remarkably different from our own, in some sense, we momentarily inhabit the other’s place. Everyone in this room knows this with the absolutely certainty of having lived it. We also have ample scientific proof for those who need it. Ever since scientists have been able to capture images of the brain in action, they have told us that when we imagine or pretend, we light up the same neural pathways as when we actually have those experiences, first-person, in real life. This understanding has become so solid that athletes are now advised to train in their imaginations for the races or leaps they want to win in actual competition.
Now it’s up to us to apply this knowledge to the problem of national recovery and the challenge of building a humane, sustainable civil society right here in the United States. Now is the time for a radical re-understanding of the social role, the critical importance, the public interest in creativity, specifically artistic creativity. We can close the gap in understanding that has prevented so many people from seeing that artistic and cultural creativity is not just a nice thing to have around, and a really special amenity when you have the resources to invest in something extra, but a necessity for recovery, survival and sustainability.
How do we do that? We have to begin by enlarging our own thinking, speech and action.
I estimate that I have been in about a trillion conversations, read about a billion arguments, that end in the slogan, “support the arts.” Accustomed to long-term deprivation, conventional arts advocates tend to think small, focusing on saving the tiniest government agencies, on hoping not to lose too much more this time around. Many conventional arts-support arguments are silly; for example, the “economic multiplier effect” of buying theater tickets: people who go to the theater may eat in a restaurant or pay to park their cars, they may have a drink after the performance. Each additional expenditure multiplies the economic impact of a dollar spent on tickets. That’s the economic multiplier effect, and, yes, it all adds up to jobs. But so what? Going to a dog show or a football game or lady mud wrestling has the same economic impact. And that’s one of the strongest conventional arts-support arguments! After decades of this stuff, conventional arts advocates have worn themselves thin stretching a point, with almost nothing to show for it. Adjusted for inflation, even the recently expanded 2009 NEA budget is worth only a bit more than half its value in 1981, the year of Ronald Reagan’s first budget cuts.
In a time of economic crisis, when people are worried about surviving, when it is hard to fund schools, housing and medical care (but still not so hard to finance war, unfortunately), arts-support arguments become even more half-hearted and desperate, and therefore even less effective. You don’t need me to tell you what’s happening to your own organizations and your own communities right now. I am reminded of the dream of right-wing crackpot Grover Norquist, who said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” That is what has happened over the last three decades to the arguments for arts support, which are circling the drain as I speak.
The remedy isn’t more shrinkage but the opposite, to think big. Conventional arts advocates claim art enriches, beautifies, expresses and entertains. These are important social goods. But the elephant in the room right now, the large, unacknowledged truth that we had better hurry up and shout from the rooftops, is that in a uniquely powerful way, art can save us.
(Click on the link at the beginning of this post to download the full talk.)