By now, I have tried out approximately one gazillion concepts, arguments and images intended to convey my passion for art’s public purpose. Some have great persuasive power and some, despite my deep conviction of their merit, don’t quite get over.
Sometimes, these are like beloved children who learn to walk or talk behind schedule: you just have to wait for events to catch up to their potential. Especially in the realm of ideas, people can find it difficult to perceive information that run counter to their usual ways of seeing. But recently, patience has begun to pay dividends in the form of greater receptivity to information that was formerly ignored or resisted. Please read on.
We are in the borderlands—on the bridge—between paradigms. Specifically, we are moving from an old, mechanistic worldview that treats artistic creativity as an accessory to the important things of life (more or less analogous to the earrings that complete a special outfit), toward one that understands culture as the secret of survival, as the best way to cultivate imagination, empathy, and other life-skills essential to viable, humane community.
For a while, I called these contrasting thought-realms “Datastan” and “Storyland.” (Here’s a link to a talk along these lines I gave at the International Centre of Art for Social Change in Vancouver; and another from the 25th anniversary of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, published in the inaugural issue of The Arts Politic.)
One of the core elements of this view is a critique of “scientism,” in the sense that Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Popper used that term, as the inappropriate application of concepts and principles that work well in the physical sciences to realms of human behavior and relationship, where they don’t fit and often wreak havoc. Scientism is exemplified by the 1950s-style hubris that imagined baby formula was superior to mother’s milk, that envisaged a future in which foodlike pills and freeze-dried pouches would substitute for all the mess and trouble fresh food entailed, that replaced so many human-scale communities with faceless high-rise hives that yielded anomie and abuse rather than the promised hygienic improvements.
The thinking behind such ideas promotes a mechanistic efficiency while ignoring soft and fuzzy things like human contact, social fabric, the aesthetic pleasure of preparing and eating real food. In a scientistic approach, we devise highly inadequate but easily administered systems of valuation and measurement, then try to make human life fit them, eliminating whatever they can’t accommodate. The tail wags the dog into submission.
But whenever I gave one of these talks contrasting the two worldviews, a few people always balked at “Datastan vs. Storyland.” Some were unwilling or unable to grasp the distinction between science and scientism; or maybe they didn’t think there was one. I was accused of being a Luddite or an anti-intellectual. Some people thought I was saying they had to choose to live in one realm or the other, as if Datastan and Storyland were two different countries, instead of two states of mind. After a while, I returned to the ever-replenishing well of argument, trying other approaches.
Now I understand that I was missing an important point. When you live in times as constrained as our own by narrow ideas of truth and proof—by systems of measurement that distort our ability to perceive and understand reality—even ideas that question that system won’t get a hearing until they’ve been assimilated by it.
Here are just three recent bulletins from Datastan, validating Storyland. I picked them almost at random from a rather large (and growing) selection:
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference, Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, explained that brain-damaged individuals can regain the power of speech through singing. (For some remarkable stories about music and dance as paths to healing for the neurologically damaged, I recommend Oliver Sack’s wonderful 1998 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Datastan is slow on the uptake.)
Daniel Casasanto and Katinka Dijkstra, two psychologists from the Netherlands, recently reported a definitive link between physical movements, emotion, and memory, with upward movements correlating more strongly to positive memories and emotions, and downward movements with negative feeling. Here’s the penultimate sentence of a report on the research: “Perhaps great choreographers intuitively realize certain movements have specific emotional meanings.” Ya think?
Another set of European researchers concluded that fantasizing about love enhances creativity, while fantasizing about sex boosts analytical skills, as reported in Scientific American. The specifics are interesting (and no doubt validating to legions of bored and amorous office workers), but it’s the underlying point I find most interesting. The scientists had their subjects imagine experiences—a long walk with a beloved, a casual sexual encounter—then administered cognitive tests. In other words, our capacity to imagine, which is to say our storytelling ability, nourishes other human capacities.
Do you see what’s happening? The two realms are converging. The new paradigm is emerging more and more, forcing itself far enough into visibility that the old paradigm must take heed. Datastan (being Datastan) responds by pulling out the lab equipment. Movement, music and imagination are assessed under controlled conditions, and—who’da thunk it?—found to have real personal and social value. Stop the presses! Mother’s milk is good for babies! Real food is better than food substitutes! Music heals! Dance aligns our emotions! Imagined stories affect our abilities!
There is a raft of this research now, the results of which are treated like breaking news. But all they really do is apply approved measuring devices to timeless and universal truths about the unbreakable link between artistic creativity and human capacity. What human beings actually do to comfort each other, celebrate, communicate, cultivate fellow-feeling and enliven our existence is make beauty and meaning through story, song, dance, through the myriad artistic forms that embody empathy and imagination. No one who has experienced this deeply really needs proof to know it. But out here on the borderlands, many people are still blinded by scientism into devaluing their own experience unless it has been validated in the lab.
(In an interesting footnote, cognitive scientist and political commentator George Lakoff just published an ecstatic piece on recent validation of his own observations through scientific studies. Datastan meets Storyland again.)
The list of things I’m unsure about grows daily, but of this I am absolutely certain: a livable future depends on human-scale social arrangements, recognizing that all of us have our stories, understanding how much we will gain by paying attention to what they are telling us. We need more face-to-face and less “Press one to remain on the line.” We need to honor human dignity, culture, and community, which requires closer attention and far more nuance than one-size-fits-all policies can provide. We need cultural policies that support art’s public purpose, instead of a policy climate that trivializes artistic creativity, inviting budget-cutters to slash and burn cultural programs, blithely unaware of the consequences of their actions.
Of course, I am going to keep trying out every new argument, parable and image that pokes its head above the horizon. Even if we can’t win this game of cultural policy whack-a-mole (and who says we can’t?), I am certain to die trying.
Why do I care so much? Like so many of my fellow artists, I am certain that art saved my life, equipping me to observe, comprehend, integrate, and express experiences that might otherwise have destroyed me. I know that our capacities for beauty and meaning, for empathy and imagination, are as critical to our collective survival as they were to my own existence. Having received the gift of this understanding, it is my delight to pass it on, and to be refreshed anew in that act, and to anticipate the pleasure of performing it again as worlds converge, as powerful truths take center stage.