“At its core – art is simultaneously about participation – access – agency – risk and reflection. Art challenges us by taking risks and modeling risk-taking, creates beauty, and can create difficult and expansive dialogues. It helps us hear our own voices and those of others—often for the first time.”
This quote from Jane Saks, international social critic, confirms the necessity and fundamental value of art in human life, in all geographies and histories. History shows us that one or another form of art has sustained the mind and spirit in the worst of circumstances, and in our best moments, has nurtured a sense of connection to our most profound possibilities. In seeking to locate those forms of experience that we can name as critical to enhancing life, the arts emerge unquestionably as a priority. The arts, widely construed and understood to comprise music, dance, theater, literature including poetry, and the visual arts in many diverse forms and media, have persisted as a basic dimension of creating and sustaining human habitation on the planet. We draw upon evidence from pre-recorded histories, from the earliest cave drawings discovered in France, from archeological discoveries of ancient musical instruments created from animal hides and the indigenous plant biostructure in Africa and Asia.
As a passionate advocate for the sheer enlightening richness of art and its multiple insights into the human condition, my professional work has involved me with museums and artistic performance in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. I can testify that the increasingly diverse history of the planet we occupy now in the 21st century can be more readily accessed, interpreted, illuminated, and perhaps most importantly, shared, through images and literatures created by artists and writers, and through the diverse musical traditions that allow meaningful interchange, broadening and deepening the most parochial of conversations.
Art matters. Literature matters. Music and theater matter. And with incredible speed, digital technologies are creating new options, endlessly evolving, even in those most recent of art forms, film and video. And it is all about connection.
These examples continue to be there for us, affirming how music that has held meaning for a very long time can connect us to our past and transform the present.
One thinks of war prisoners in the Terezin extermination camps, who somehow created orchestras, playing concerts commanded by their captors, but heard as well by doomed fellow prisoners. Those who survive testify to the spiritual nurture the music provided, in their darkest hours. We know that children in the same camps astonished their captors by the poignant pictures they drew, images which remain as testament to the horrors sustained and, on occasion, survived.
One thinks of other prisoners, chained together in what were called “chain gangs,” black men only one or two generations out of slavery, working like slaves in the merciless sun of Mississippi, creating rhythmic melodies that transformed the brutality of their predicament into song, into a strange kind of fettered lock-step dance. The omnipresence of armed men who monitored their steps had not the dominion to stop the dance, or silence the song.
The ways of hatred are a perhaps ineluctable dimension of what we mean by the term human. Still, the history of humanity is also rich with the salvific capability of music. The old and the new will continue to coalesce, as in one unforgettable moment last year, participated in by millions of Americans watching television from their thousands of homes, hoping to find a way to think about and make sense of a senseless massacre, nine people relentlessly shot down inside their sanctuary by a young boy made crazy with race hatred. In that unanticipable moment, people of every age, class, and color, urban dwellers and farmers, churched and unchurched, were bound together by the spontaneous and shared experience of music, singing a revered traditional hymn together with parishioners in their pews in a small Black church in South Carolina, grieving together over a tragedy that though local, had implications for the entire nation.
President Obama was in Charleston that morning, speaking in an impassioned eulogy, renaming one by one the victims of hate as symbols of love, overcoming a tragic loss, seemingly without meaning, into an affirmation that the meaning in life itself is right there with them, and with us, that love can triumph over hate. As this young President spoke from the pulpit, haltingly though eloquently, in words somehow not quite powerful enough to bear the reality of the lives lost for no reason except racial hatred, with tears in his eyes, he quietly broke into song, and the entire congregation joined with him in singing the familiar words written a long time ago on a slave ship, Amazing Grace.. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind and now I see.” Across the nation, thousands of voices joined in what was a unique moment of healing, widely acknowledged as one of the most powerful moments of his Presidency. Some call this grace.
In a panoply of exemplary events, one other story comes to mind: a quite personal one. On the first day or two following the 2016 Presidential election, many citizens across the country were in a kind of shock, disbelieving the reality of a process in which America’s electoral college system could deny victory to a candidate with a margin of close to three million votes more than the candidate ultimately declared the winner. Challenges from diverse sectors ensued, to no avail, and many, many people felt helplessly angry, injured, and defenseless. The news media were in 24-hour reportage mode, exacerbating an already incendiary predicament. People took to the streets in protest marches, small and mostly futile steps to cope with their rage and feelings of betrayal.
A day or two later, my husband had a ticket, purchased well before the election, to attend a Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concert, to hear Brahms’ German Requiem. At the close of the concert, enormously moved by the music and its appropriateness for the moment, his experience reflected in the many silent standing ovations that filled the grand spaces of Orchestra Hall, my husband spontaneously bought two additional tickets for the next day’s performance, so that I could share what for him had been an extraordinary experience. In a dark, interior emotional space, in no mood for a night out, I accompanied him to this second performance, and without will, lost myself in the solemn beauty of the music, exactly as my husband had done, exactly as the hundreds of concertgoers that evening had done. We all sat transfixed until the final bars, then stood wordlessly for one of the longest applauses in recent memory. Later, walking down the gilded stairs and in the elegant lobby, usually bustling, now eerily quiet, I noticed men and women with tears in their eyes, others holding hands. A piece of music created by a German composer 150 years ago, commemorating the deaths of his mother and his close friend, fellow composer Robert Schumann, had the power to engage the mind and spirit, one might say, even the soul, of those listeners. The music had the power to open a space of deep consolation for an audience in a very different kind of grief in a very different place and time. Schumann’s widow had spoken of the Requiem as a “truly tremendous piece of art which moves the entire being in a way little else does.” Her words echo down the centuries.
We are opened, touched, nurtured, healed, reminded of what is best in our singular and communal nature. We visit museums and theaters and concert halls, we read poetry, we dance, make art, make music…we look and listen…we are reminded. Human life is irrevocably enhanced by great art.
Ronne Hartfield is an author, essayist, and international museum consultant, and a Public Interlocutor for The Enhancing Life Project.
Image attribution: Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016