In the space of a few short months the world, and especially Vermont, lost several of its brightest lights: John Engels, poet and teacher passed away in June; Lillian Farber, photographer, philanthropist, and activist and Louis Moyse, flutist, teacher, and co-founder of Music at Marlboro in late July, and then Rusty Jacobs of Woods Tea Company just this past week.
When even one luminary dies, the initial surprise and dismay is followed by several moments of contemplative silence during which you think about your own life and wonder what more you could do to make it have even a fraction of the meaning or impact of the life of person who just passed. Losing four is a shock to the system.
It is not for me to improve upon the impressive and beautifully written testimonials, editorials, and obituaries that have been written about these four artists by family-members, friends, former students, professional colleagues, and newspaper editors. Their passing, however, has inspired me to share a brief reflection on the role of art and art-making in general.
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Since the mid-20th century our society has become increasingly disconnected from its cultural roots and has even dissociated itself from others who are culturally, ethnically, or religiously “different.” Television, personal computing, Game Boys and Blackberries, if not the root cause of this situation, have certainly exacerbated it—immunizing us to sometimes terrible images and sound bites because we no longer have time for the leavening influence of family or community to provide a vital context for those images and sound bites. Paradoxically, our increased connection to the world has left us more isolated within it.
The decline in quality of our public schools, the increased drop-out rate among adolescents, the increased sensationalism in our mass media, the perceived loss standards in our popular art forms, the disturbing upward trend of men under the age of 21 whose lives are now controlled by our corrections system are all related symptoms of a general lack of commitment to our community and to each other.
For me, the most powerful antidote to all of these problems is the arts. There is a transformation that occurs in a person when a work of art, a piece of music, a play, a dance, or a poem speaks to him/her for the first time from a place that our language centers are unable to process. Art is a language; a form of communication that uses different “alphabets” (sound, movement, color) to communicate common and uncommon aspects of our humanity to each other, regardless of our backgrounds.
The arts MUST be in all schools, preferably integrated into core curriculum so there is little opportunity for people to establish a belief that art is “for others.” When the arts are cut from a school budget, student engagement will decrease and truancy and delinquency will increase. The three “Rs—(and their offspring “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math)—ignore the arts. So I insist that the way to engage kids in schools is by focusing on the three “As”—Academics, Athletics, and the Arts. Every district, every school, every student should have its own plan for how it will pursue excellence in these three areas. Kids will naturally find their own areas of comfort, expertise and belonging. For some, the arts will only be an academic pursuit; for others the arts will be as physically demanding as a varsity sport. And for still others, the arts will be an end unto itself that at the very least keeps them engaged in school.
The arts MUST be central to our community life. As mass media, pop culture, Game Boys, and worse (drug abuse, divorce) challenge our community fabric to the point where locked gates and barred windows become a necessity, the arts can provide a nucleus around which shared values and concerns may be explored. The whole “creative economy” movement is, I believe, a recognition of the role of the arts in this revitalization process. Artists must be at every planning/zoning table, every chamber of commerce meeting, every public affairs policy debate, and every school funding discussion. The creative mind promotes aesthetics and good design in our public spaces. It also develops solutions to issues that sometimes perplex those of us who tend to only value rationality and measurable returns.
Finally, the arts MUST be a part of the image we project as a nation to the rest of the world. Cultural diplomacy is probably the single most effective tool we have to understand other cultures and reverse societal trends towards isolationism. The arts offer meaningful paths to building relations with people of different faiths and citizens of different races.
The arts are not just for the privileged few, the “elite.” They belong to us all because they come from us all.