Written as part of course study in Music and Social Action (Yale/Coursera).
Speaking at Amherst College in 1961, US President John F Kennedy said: “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world, in pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time.”
He was continuing the American discussion of a “cultural democracy”, a concept dating at least to the New Deal era. In the 1960s, the tensions of the Cold War were deepening.
I am not an Americanophile (why isn’t there a better word for that?) by any means, but this Yale course is presenting US ideas on the arts alongside an American interpretation of democratic values. They're worth the analysis, particularly for how we comprehend the social role or artists.
Philosopher and aestheticist Maxine Greene remarks on Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s (MLK) “I have a dream” speech. She says he was opening possibilities for the audience. MLK's words didn’t guarantee anything but drew attention to the suffering of the characters he invoked. The speech made visible an abstraction (rather than a reality), but also made visible the faces of particular people in the minds of the listener.
Greene believes that artists can provide the imagination to move beyond the actuality/reality, taking us to a point where we feel better equipped to act. An artist’s vision can provide us with evidence, or language, or belief that had not yet existed. With this new resource, we are better positioned to do something. In MLK’s example, Americans in the 1963 could listen to the conviction behind MLK’s words, his utter faith, and believe that this new reality might indeed be possible.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually."
Art may also have a role in criticising institutions. In these lessons, I’ve found myself considering the critical role played by journalism in upholding democratic values such as transparency, accountability, etc. It’s certainly important to distinguish the functions of art (aesthetics) and journalism (reportage).
Journalism employs evidence to construct arguments about a given situation. Whether as an editorial, a comment piece, or investigative reporting, journalism is vital to our knowledge base. Bias is, therefore, an even more important concept to understand in all its complexity. We only see what we are shown.
According to this course, the artistic process has a public role while also being intensely personal. I think it's the capacity for abstraction that grants art its power; we can learn about something by experiencing something else. We can learn about the natural world by looking at a painting. We can learn about the gods by listening to a violin.
The artist cannot necessarily impact on people’s behaviour. The artist can only influence the minds of those who engage with the artwork. Art doesn’t have a concrete effect on how you view the world. There's no tangible way to quantify its effect. Do I walk out of a concert more able to view my state as corrupt? Or my romantic relationship as unique?
Rather, art encourages creative thinking; about beauty, about love, about religion, about governance, etc. It's often a personal experience, a private reflection. Maybe an artwork invites you into a community with others?
On this point, I recently read an article about the phenomenon of the silent disco. There were commentators bemoaning the breakdown of social relations, especially via the arts – dancing to music alone. Not merely alone, but deliberately shut off from a communal experience by wearing earphones. The horror!
But isn’t this missing the point? The communal experience is relative to that community, and the audience is always evolving. Technology dictates the possibilities of the day, and silent discos are still a novelty for many of us. So why shouldn’t we share in this unusual communal experience?
Another commentator remarked that record players, and the subsequent culture of solitary listening, could be seen as a negative indictment of the communal function of music. However, bringing songs into the home means that thousands, millions can share in the same experience of a commercial recording. I can listen to a song anywhere in the world and know for a fact that someone on the other side of the world is doing the same thing – for precisely the same length of time, sharing a moment. Isn’t that a feat of communal experience?
Especially if we engage with the song. Regardless of where in the world I may listen to a song or watch a YouTube ballet clip, I can be challenged by the work in the same way as an old woman in Japan. This sense of shared openness is intangible and immeasurable, but it serves to bond an audience into a community.
Community cannot be produced simply by rational formulation, nor by edict. Like freedom, it has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognise together and appreciate in common. It ought to be a space infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to imagine alternative possibilities for their own becoming and the group’s becoming. - Maxine Greene
We can be bold in the way we perceive the future, but we must accept that it’s going to take generations to evolve that vision. Community is a constant process of ‘becoming’; constant challenging, constant striving, never-ending. It’s a community-in-the-making. So the question for us is: what can a community of creative citizens achieve together?