The role of the arts in helping to rebuild society has become a significant topic as we gaze out at the elongating time horizon of COVID-19 and experience its devastating effect on our lives and livelihoods. Social, racial, cultural and economic disparities cannot continue to be systemically reinforced if we are to heal the gaping wounds of our past within our hyper-changing present. Any lasting recovery will need to correct ingrained patterns of neglect and inequity. The arts are by no means is unassailable, and yet despite our flaws, we will play a critical role economically and culturally.
There is no doubt that our arts and culture frameworks add economic and cultural vitality to our communities. While social, cultural and educational purpose drives most arts organizations, we also generate positive economic impact. In the not-for-profit sector, we derive our monetary means through public participation and philanthropic investment and expend these resources to yield positive benefits to any industries: retailers, suppliers and services essential to our work. I won't dwell on the impressive and widely available statistics, but it’s important to note that the economic benefit of our work accumulates in society, flowing to adjacent people and enterprises, rather than accruing back to us as monetary profit. The resources that propel the arts nourish a commitment to cause over profitable self-interest and assures that benefits are dispersed.
Recognizing the benefits of creative activity in society matters moving forward. To me, however extraordinary what we make is, the true value is in the less-explored regions of how we think and learn.
This distinction has never quite taken hold in American society. Many might ask how a song, painting, dance, book or film can help repair the bruised and long-neglected aspects of our democracy, or point the way to immediate economic recovery. It's not the single gesture of a work of art or a stand-alone cultural institution that I am referring to; it is the processes that inform our collective contributions throughout an extremely diverse cultural ecosystem.
Artists know how to see beyond the familiar fence line and disrupt the complacencies and habitual strategies we might otherwise continue applying — consciously or unconsciously. Artists do not default to old patterns when confronting change or challenge. They set a higher bar for shaping and sharing their ideas, which do not spring from the blinding malleability of American exceptionalism or entitlement, but from a persistent and deeply lived awareness of what is that can be put into service for what could be.
I believe we must turn to artists. We must vigorously invite their expansive knowledge to the recovery table: every policy table, every economic table, every neighborhood table, every board room, courtroom, backroom and everywhere else that has previously prioritized administrative expertise and monetary leveraging over inclusive problem-solving.
We cannot afford to bypass the poets and artists among us.
While facts and information play a crucial role in our democracy, journalism and sciences, the creative subjectivity of the arts gives rise to meaning and meaningfulness. We craft our art forms for expressing inner truths that can speak to people from the contours of emotional intelligence and perspective. We are abundantly comfortable with being a place for provocation, inspiration, inquiry and encounter. Our largest work — our collective project — is to tend to the cultural commons where an evolving effort towards shared belonging extends across successive generational endeavors.
Public care is our most durable good.
While working with the artist Tom Sachs some years ago, I asked him why he was going to spend the next two years of his life on a major project requiring irrational dedication, backed only by humble resources. He was committing himself and his team to what the U.S. government had already scuttled as a national priority — the successful landing of human beings on Mars. Using his considerable art-making process, Tom was going to complete the interrupted mission. He installed a two-year countdown clock on the wall of his studio, spent immeasurable hours in research and training using voluminous amounts of duct-tape and recycled materials to build spacecraft and landing modules, potable water systems and every critical detail of the equipment necessary for sustaining life while arriving and returning from Mars. He collaborated with NASA and JPL to ensure everything was accurate, theoretically consistent and functional — his mock-up of Mars filled a huge art space in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory.
Sachs was dedicated to carrying forward a mission jettisoned from the national agenda. Where the effort of scientists, engineers, physicists and astronauts had been redirected, he could use his creativity to fulfill a stalled promise. He was applying his form of optimism through his work ethic for the grace of continuity.
Every day for two years, the studio assistants wore NASA lab coats and greeted one another with a promise that had been originally adhered to by the astronauts leading up to the Apollo Moon landing: "It won't fail because of me." In the end, he and his studio assistants did land and return from their makeshift Mars within the Park Avenue Armory according to schedule, and to the rapt attention of the public assembled to witness the journey.
With the calamities facing the world, rebuilding what has been is no longer our most pressing goal — reimagining the future moving forward is. The ever-changing present requires the arts to accelerate our well-practiced ethos of compassionate vision, intellectual honesty and moral ingenuity. These are urgently required for shaping the road ahead. In the recent words of jazz legend Sonny Rollins, a “me first” (and then maybe you, later) attitude can only send us backward.
We are interdependent in the work of reimagining. It won’t be what the arts make, but how we think and learn and act that echoes the refrain: it won’t fail because of me.
Top Image: UCLA's Royce Hall | Phinn Sriployrung