Some Thoughts about Art, America
& Jumping off the Cliff
April 1990, US Congress, Washington DC
When I began writing this article there was talk of a strong lobby of members of Congress who wanted to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts completely. I pondered upon what that would mean to this country and further, what exactly does art mean to this country at this time? And even further, what is the role of the artist in this society?
I often go on tour as a “cultural ambassador” representing the United States in festivals and concert halls in countries as far reaching as Finland, Morocco, Japan, Italy, France, Portugal, Israel, Norway, Germany and Yugoslavia. I am proud to be called an American artist (although I feel actually more like a citizen of the world) and I am moved by the responses of the audiences to art. It seems then that art really speaks from heart to heart and that it can eloquently communicate the deepest human mysteries, insights and expression regardless of differences in culture and language. In a way, I am fortunate in that my work is non-verbal in nature so that the smokescreen of language does not have to be bypassed or passed through. Nevertheless even in work in which there is a great deal of text (which needs to be translated), art is basically a language of perception and spirit and feeling which at its best can transcend the particularities of culture.
I was recently on a panel in Boulder, Colorado, about the Artist in Society. Steve Durland, an artist and writer from Los Angeles, stated eloquently that “the artist is the conscience or soul of a culture.” As our society becomes more fragmented, more bombarded with images, more numbed to feeling, more restless and impatient, what the artist has to offer becomes more and more essential to the health of the community. In a sense, there are three basic artistic strategies which fulfill this function. One is to make art which states the problems or wounds of society; which makes people aware of the underpinnings of the society and wakes them up to act or make changes in their lives or in their communities. The second is to make art which offers an alternative; that demonstrates human behavior which becomes a paradigm for what creativity, cooperation, freedom and playfulness could be. The third is to make art which in itself provides glimpses of a larger consciousness or reflects upon the inexplicable. Some artists mirror the time in which they live. Others convey in their work a sense of timelessness and continuity. That we have this variety of approaches is healthy and meaningful.
What I am always struck by when I return to the United States after having been away for a while is the misguided perception (or non-perception) of art as a marginal concern in our contemporary life. It saddens me to think of how a country filled with energy, ingenuity and originality can have so little care about something which is ultimately so nourishing and life affirming. In other countries, art is still a vital forum. Quality is appreciated; communication and involvement are respected and taken in deeply. Here, art has become a commodity rather than a way of life. It is thought of as a diversion rather than an essential need. It is true that it takes a lot of effort to go somewhere after a day of working at a job that might not be very satisfying and take a chance on seeing or hearing something that might be beautiful but could also be disturbing or provocative. At the least, it would probably take some commitment or mental participation to fully enjoy it. It is easier to stay home and watch TV, listen to music or read a magazine. Media satisfy the restlessness and impatience that come from speed, fragmentation and exhaustion with instant gratification and no effort. Media provide an image of experience rather than grounded experience itself. Art offers something else–depth, involvement, a new way of looking at the world that we live in, a fresh approach to what we take for granted, a chance to experience freedom of the imagination.
I’ve been thinking about why freedom of the imagination could seem so dangerous to some of the “powers that be.” Imagination seems like such a quiet but inalienable right. It is true that the more ignorant a people becomes, the more it can be manipulated from above. You don’t miss what you don’t know. If you don’t know what you are missing, you don’t know that you miss it. It is important that future generations can still partake of the process and the riches of art. That they can be exposed to the adventure of creativity; that curiosity, trusting intuition and taking risks are ways of keeping life a continually growing process.
For me as an artist, attempting to start at zero (trying to pretend that this is my first piece) with each piece that I begin, is a way of keeping me interested, curious, awake. I try not to take anything for granted. It’s a little like being a detective–you have a few clues but at the beginning, you are stumbling around in the dark. You follow each clue, hoping that it will lead to the next one; that what you sense internally will make itself known. At a certain point, you have to go to the edge of the cliff and jump (put your ideas into a form, share that form with others). Either you will fly or you might fall (then, for your next attempt you will have probably learned a great deal) but the courage of the jump is the creative act. Of course, the best times are when you feel that a piece already exists and that you are merely a medium for bringing it to life.
Those are blessed times creatively. In between, you continue working on your craft, struggling, learning so that you will be ready for the next inspiration or insight that comes to you. I think that what seems dangerous about this process to some prominent members of our society is the insistence upon following inner truth as opposed to obeying or giving into obligations coming from the world, which are in conflict with the inner reality of the individual. Joseph Campbell talked about “following your bliss.” I guess for some people this can seem threatening to their sense of order or at best unrealistic. But in fact, this inner questioning, listening, awakening is one of the ways that we can each, in our own way, contribute to the future of the world.
Art, as one offering, provides an environment where people can experience magic and transformation; be part of a community; can feel wonder, awe, the full palette of emotion. We have lost contact with our inner life. Art becomes a paradigm for whole, integrated human beings using the fullness of their resources as artists and as audiences. Art stimulates perception, thought, feeling, physicality, spirit.
A few months ago, I was asked by an audience of presenters at the ACCUCA conference; “What does an artist what most from a presenter?” What came into my mind immediately was the word “love.” When I said this, the audience was shocked and I, in turn, was surprised by their response. I guess what they thought I would say was; “better hotel rooms, more meals, a limousine etc.” What I meant was that what we need is the desire of sponsors to really have us there: that the sponsors know our work, know what we have to offer to their community; know that what we do is done with care. We spend our lives striving for a kind of perfection and even though we know that it is an illusion, we try nevertheless. Art, even the angriest, darkest variety, is created out of love.
In America, at this time, we are fortunate to have a handful of visionary presenters who understand this and perceive how important this is to their constituents. These hero/heroines have followed the field (and love the field), bringing artists because of their belief in quality and validity of the artists’ work and the work’s power to move, provoke, stimulate and enrich the community. What has happened generally, in the past ten years, is that because of the economic climate, some of these brave souls have had to quit or to hand over their jobs to people who have no love for the arts and whose concern is merely for the bottom line. What this does is to cheat the public and particularly our children of expansive, lively experiences; experiences which stretch their perceptions and stimulate their own creativity as human beings. What they get is what they already know. Adventure is stripped away.
What we need in America right now is to fight for our right to jump off the cliff. That means to create a climate which affirms the ability to take risks; to demand recognition from the top, that art is a vital and pungent force in our lives. Art, even the most irreverent, is a vivid response to the time in which we live. As artists, presenters, audiences and lovers of art, we have a deep function and role in our society. We are responsible human beings.
To abolish the NEA would be an act of utter ignorance and destruction. It is almost inconceivable to think that a country whose artists influenced a generation of musicians, dancers, painters, writers and directors in Europe and Asia, could be so unappreciative of one of its finest resources (and exports). At the grass roots level, we need to encourage a renewal of energy, ideas and strategies of doing art and sharing it with our communities. We have the possibility of learning from each other, affirming each other, dissolving boundaries both between the art forms and between cultural communities. This is as it should be–a reflection of our rapidly changing world and our concern for the future of the planet.
Copyright 1990 by Meredith Monk. All rights reserved.