I’m house-sitting for some people who have a very old cat. Although there is no physical resemblance, her presence reminds me of my beloved Kitsa Levine, who tiptoed off to kitty heaven at the end of 2004. When I hear a familiar cry, or feel a furry chin brush against my leg on the way to the kitchen for a restorative bowl of Senior Salmon (mixed with a crushed kitty pill), something deep inside says “Kitsa!” Even though she has been gone these past five years, my eyes begin to search for her black and white loveliness.
This is my second house-sitting venue; next week, there will be a third; and in between, I am the guest of beloved friends. So I have nearly infinite opportunity to experience the dislocation that attaches to sleeping in an unfamiliar bed. A noise rouses me, or a call of nature, and before I have a chance to organize my awareness, an old neural pathway is activated. I expect to see a room, a person, a vista very different from the actual sights surrounding me. In that expectation and its aftermath, my brain plays a familiar tune on the instrument of my emotions.
In the twilight between sleeping and waking, I can see more clearly than amidst daylight distractions how powerful those misplaced emotions can be. The crinkle of a newspaper against the bedclothes sets off emotions that are positively operatic. From the inside, they feel very true, but after a few minutes, they fade.
Sometimes it’s a laugh and sometimes a sob, but here’s the thing: no matter how many times this happens, there’s nothing I can do to stop it from happening again. I can only bring awareness to these embedded emotions and their effects: Oh, there that is again. I hope to be able to release my reaction sooner each time, until—I tell myself—the release follows so quickly on the reaction that I will barely notice it.
Maybe I will succeed: I’ve made a choice to work on this aspect of my reactivity, marshaling awareness and effort to reach a desired goal. Now transfer my personal reactions to social issues and multiply them times 300 million, a large percentage of whom may not feel they need to bring greater awareness to any particular aspect of their mental processes. How hard it is to change embedded political emotions!
This morning I met with some smart people whose trade is “reframing.” They study the way we think and use language, helping activists who care deeply about democracy and public opinion to think and speak more clearly and effectively. I sought their help in reframing the ways my colleagues and I have been talking about the essential role of artistic creativity in cultivating empathy and social imagination. When we argue about language (and right now, that’s a very hot and frequent argument), all the obvious words seem wrong.
When someone says “the arts,” people think of red carpets and marble palaces, and according to much research on the associations attaching to those images, the feeling this often triggers is “not for me.” As I visualize it, this reaction rhymes with dropping an Alka-Seltzer tablet into a glass of water, or one of those Chinese toys where a seashell, once immersed, opens to reveal a trail of paper seaweed and flying fish.
From a word dropped into our minds, a world of associated information unfolds: all the ways the founders of major arts institutions surrounded themselves with the signifiers of privilege and power, all the ways they declared that the art they enshrine is the most precious and worthy of all. Even though art can be hip-hop dance, graphic novels, Hollywood film or Delta blues as easily as it can be Swan Lake, the Bayeux Tapestry or the Eroica Symphony, the steady drumbeat of institutional branding has cemented “the arts” to a particular set of elite associations, for better or worse.
To me, “culture” is a much more powerful concept, because it encompasses all the things we make and do to communicate, declare ourselves, celebrate and express. But pop it like an Alka-Seltzer into a conversation in the checkout line at the supermarket, and instantly a dusty, academic flavor unfolds, a trailing smudge of Mitteleuropa foreignness. The remark attributed to Nazi leader Hermann Göring comes to mind in illustration of the word’s ideological burden: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.” Which is to say that people who use the word “culture” (and I use it multiple times each day) have a bone to pick and a thesis to prove. (Wikipedia has a pretty convincing correction, by the way, that the line comes from a play by Nazi poet laureate Hanns Johst: “Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety catch of my Browning!” But they also say Göring and Hess and other Nazi bigwigs made use of it.)
It’s not just a vocabulary problem, it’s also about the intrinsic difficulty of talking plainly and convincingly about categories like “the arts” and “culture,” in which one word stands in for a complex and diverse universe of ideas, practices and meanings. But beyond all that, it’s about somehow neutralizing or reversing the distortions that prior assertion and experience have attached to these powerful words. Just trying to do that equals picking an argument with concepts as soundly embedded in our minds as the associations that trigger my intense responses to otherwise innocuous sounds in the night.
What we want is to move the whole category of culture from the column headed “nice but who cares?” into the column headed “essential for survival and democracy.” Readers—especially if you aren’t an “arts person” who is so thoroughly marinated in the existing vocabulary that it’s hard to think without it—tell me: how would you do it?