By now, it is perhaps obvious that the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and the reawakening several months later of a vastly energized Black Lives Matter movement are not separate episodes in history but a single global phenomenon. The pandemic exposed the corrosive economic and racial inequality that is eating away at societies around the world. It also laid bare an all too common absence of responsible governance, which is not an accident in many places but almost a deliberate program, advanced politically by forces that would like to maintain and increase inequality. Throughout the first months of 2020, people staggered, as the aggravated effects of inequality and incompetent leadership landed their terrible blows. Then, after the murder of George Floyd, people refused to stagger any longer. They took to the streets.
I am greatly heartened to see this spark of popular resistance. It shows me that millions of people are asking themselves the same questions that author Elif Shafak posed in the Berggruen Institute’s magazine Noēma about the society that will emerge after COVID-19. Do you really want to go back to “normal?” Or would you rather build a new world that is fairer and kinder?
The question I would ask after Shafak’s is even more pressing. On the basis of what ideas will we build this better world? As any student of history will tell you, change happens through people and their ideas. For that reason, today’s resistance movement needs the same assets developed by every successful movement in the past: leadership, organization, a plan and behind them all — a narrative.
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This is where the arts and culture are indispensable in rebuilding society. A narrative is an idea put into motion imaginatively and shared among people. It is an idea in expressive, relatable form, conveying values and inspiring right action — which is crucial if we are to move forward. Action for its own sake is overrated and can wind up sapping your energy. The right action nourishes and empowers.
One thing I have learned, or rather re-learned, over the past months about the social role of the arts is that they can confront us with the fundamental problem of having a voice and making choices. As the digital realm burgeoned because of the pandemic, making us more networked but less connected, I often wondered how the arts can lead us back to an awareness of our human dilemma. At some point in our lives, we all must become conscious that we have a chance to become ourselves — or to become frightened and lapse into being what others tell us we are.
The great challenge for the arts now is to dig deeper into the ideas that can animate change and rebuild society, bringing those ideas to life for people. For this reason, I see a back-and-forth movement for the arts, at one moment engaging with people broadly and actively, at another moment seeking the distance and calm that are necessary for self-examination and profound thought. I would like the campus that the Berggruen Institute is building in the Santa Monica Mountains to be a home for the quieter, more inward-looking phase, inspired by the landscape we are preserving for all and by the beauty and spirit of Herzog & de Meuron’s great architecture. And I would like the conversations that take place at the Institute’s hilltop community to flow into the fabric of the city, spark new creativity among artists and a hopeful new narrative for people longing for change.
Ultimately, I would like this new narrative — created in Los Angeles — to spread throughout the world.
Top Image: Berggruen Institute Campus Renderings | Courtesy of Herzog & De Meuron