The Arts Can Save Us

“Science provides an understanding of a universal experience. Arts provide a universal understanding of a personal experience.” ~ Mae Jemison

“The arts in America exist in spite of America, not because of America.” ~ Henry Rollins

“No artist tolerates reality.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m going to admit this up front. I’ve been a theatre artist and teacher for over forty years, so these comments are highly biased. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, however.

As the world goes through this pandemic, I’ve been watching as artists of all kinds are posting their songs, scenes via Zoom, book narration, or visual art online to help people cope with their confinement. I shed tears of joy when I heard that many Italians sang to each other from their windows every evening as an affirmation of life. While scientists and medical researchers are trying to find a cure for this virus, artists are helping us cope with the emotional strain we’re experiencing.

Originally I was going to write about the trend in the U.S. to push STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) over concentrating on the Humanities, but it seems that this world wide virus might be pointing out the mistake of favoring education of the mind, over education of the heart. The truth is we need both.

The arts are always the programs that are considered non-essential and are underfunded, or cut when times get tough. But art in all it’s forms is an attempt to shine a light on the goodness, darkness, and the in between of what it means to be human.

As an artist I try to imbue my work with the emotions I’m dealing with at any given moment. Hopefully my readers connect with something they can relate to. And hopefully the student theatre artists I teach come to understand something about themselves as they encounter plays and movies we analyze.

People who are not artists might not understand what happens to someone creating something that will be seen and evaluated. We get into a zone, as great athletes describe when they are performing well. Energy goes into what the artist is creating. And then, when it’s viewed by others, the energy is transmitted to the viewer as well.

When I tried acting for the first time, I got hooked on the high I felt when the audience responded to my character’s dilemmas. Audiences, I found went on a ride with all of us involved in performing the story. At the end, they were, hopefully, changed in some indefinable way. Those of us involved in producing the play were changed too as we analyzed and worked to understand what the characters learned as they faced their challenges.

Have you ever had that feeling of going to a play, concert, movie, or art exhibit and something indescribable happens to you. You feel different somehow. I’ve felt it as an actor and as an audience member. Something I can’t quite define has shifted inside. I feel lighter and more whole than I did before.

You might not think that visual art has the same energy imbued in it as performances do, but they do. In 1996 my husband, who is a visual artist, and I took a trip circumnavigating the globe. We made visiting spiritual sites and art museums a priority. Actually, I think that they are the same thing. Art is spiritual. In any case, I had a couple of profound, rather inexplicable experiences on our tour.

In Paris, we decided to visit Notre Dame. The cathedral was filled with lots of tourists, but the choir was practicing and the tourists were respectfully subdued. We were given the brochure and one of the first things on the path is a statue of Joan of Arc. The moment I saw the statue, I began to weep uncontrollably. I was crying so hard, I couldn’t remember what she looked like until today when I looked up a photo. She’s standing in her armor, looking toward heaven, with her hands palms together with a battle flag between them. Something about that statue spoke to me.

My poor husband didn’t know what to do. I was a mess, trying to hide my tears from the crowd. Fortunately there was a cordoned off space for worshipers to sit and pray. He guided me there. I have no idea how long we sat there. I weep today remembering the emotions of seeing Joan praying for guidance. That’s how I interpret what she’s doing in the statue. The artist’s interpretation of Joan of Arc had an energy that surrounded it and still speaks to me today as I remember the feeling of being in the presence of that beautiful piece of art. I felt and still feel connected to Joan of Arc.

I had a similar experience a couple of weeks later when we visited the Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. The bottom floor was filled with works by other artists. I walked into a room and on the wall near the door was a small painting of a bedroom with a bed and a chair. The curtains were drawn so that the sunshine streamed through the window. Again I was overcome with emotion which baffled me. The painting wasn’t about anything remarkable. Why was I so affected? The energy projecting from the painting almost knocked me over. I said to myself, Who painted that? and was floored when the plaque said, “Pablo Piccaso”. The paint and canvas were imbued with his passion as he worked on this seemingly insignificant work of art.

Upstairs one of Van Gogh’s paintings of men and women harvesting wheat had the same effect on me. I’ve had that feeling of emotional connection while reading books, at theatre performances, watching movies and TV programs, listening to music, and watching dance. I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to know why I’m engulfed by emotion at these moments. What is important is that I’m allowing myself to FEEL something.

My point in writing this article is to emphasize that emotions are so much more important than we have acknowledged. I’ve watched with deep sadness as people in our culture, I speaking of the American culture, medicate themselves so they don’t have to feel their pain. Any tender emotions are thought of as weak. We apologize when we cry in public. But we think it’s okay to vomit our darker emotions all over anyone who challenges our comfortable bubble of beliefs. And unfortunately too often we kill each other because we don’t want to acknowledge we’re in pain.

The world is in one of the most urgent set of crises we’ve ever faced. I believe consuming and teaching the arts can help us learn to express our emotions in healthy ways. We need the rational sides of our brains to help us figure a way out of some of our problems. But I believe that we can’t solve our outside problems without healing our inside wounds. Involvement in the arts, whether as a creator or as a spectator, can help us heal our long held emotional wounds so that we can relate to each other in more caring and loving ways.

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