I am really very upset by the election, and this doesn't begin to address what I think is needed in these times, but I had a few thoughts on the role of art.
The issue the arts will grapple with in upcoming weird times will be empathy. I thought this before the election, and I thought of it independently, but then I started hearing he word crop up in conversations about often enough that it could not be a random thing. And then the election happened…and suddenly, empathy is a DefCon Five thing, in the arts, and in everything.
In 1993 Dave Hickey said beauty would be the big issue of art in the 1990’s. It kind of fizzled, if you ask me, but at least it became a topic one could actually reasonably discuss. Before that, to mention beauty in a conversation about art was to sound hopelessly retrograde and right wing. Beauty was Miss America in all its oppressive obnoxiousness. I bring beauty up in a conversation about empathy, not just apropos predictions but because of the relationship between them. I will get to that presently, but here’s the spoiler, as phrased by Rodgers and Hammerstein, if you can’t wait: “Do I love you because you're beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?”
What the world needs now is empathy, sweet empathy…that aspect of loving your neighbor that requires that you imagine yourself in their shoes. And by neighbor, I include your enemy, first and foremost. Because empathy untested by that level of discomfort is mere words.
Before the election, I had luxury problems and one of my favorites was to fret over the role of IMAGINATION in the arts. Now I know. Without imagination, you are merely staring at your neighbor’s shoes, with no avenue for inhabiting them; such is the tyranny of separate consciousnesses. Imagination is no luxury; it is the main gateway to empathy. So this is a call for artists to insist on the value of their imaginations. Show me what’s in your brain, so I can better be at one with you! Show me how I can use my imagination so you can inhabit mine!
The second thing about empathy is near and dear to my heart and yet another thing that seems like a luxury problem. Why is handwork important? I am sick to death of the post-Industrial Revolution notions of handiwork being good for the soul, that handcrafts are virtuous. Sometimes they are just indulgent and escapist and sometimes craftspersons are creeps. Why should handwork matter in our age?
Because it engenders empathy. Here’s how. Look at a manufactured item and look at a hand made one. The manufactured one has no trace of handwork, but obviously the handmade one will. Now, I hate to bring up Mirror Neurons because a philosopher friend of mine once made a terribly cogent argument to me that Mirror Neurons merely locate something miraculous that we have known for eons and that is that we have the potential for compassion and empathy. Who cares that a scientist discovered where and how and named them? The fact was always there. OK, whatever.
When looking at a handmade object mirror neurons go into action and do their funky thing. Even without a maker present making the object, one is virtually forced to imagine the act, thereby inhabiting the reality of another person’s human consciousness if only by proxy and only for a second. And that is damn well better than nothing. Better, even than the idea that by being craftsy it will keep you from stealing cars or whatever weird virtue you ascribe to crafts. (But that’s good too.)
Finally, empathy and love are obviously related…and they relate to the notion of beauty in the arts. Beauty, as I always like to remind people, is not the same as prettiness. Prettiness is pleasant and pleasing as well as measurable (Think golden rectangles, and Fibonacci sequences). Hickey, in “The Invisible Dragon” where he attempts to resuscitate beauty, mistakenly defines beauty as “the agency that caused visual pleasure in the beholder”. But beauty, of course can only cause pleasure insomuch as it can cause pain…JUST LIKE LOVE DOES.) Beauty, like love, truth, the divine and other grand abstractions must exist at the nexus of mind and body, they must be yin/yangs that give rise to their own opposite, in order that it be a full spectrum authentic experience. In order to understand each other we must understand and love them as flawed, unresolved, contradictory and difficult. And we must understand this in own selves as well. When you love someone, this must happen and when you love an artwork it is the same. Artworks are, after all, human souls encoded into non-human form, so that we may have a chance to echolocate off them and discover our own consciousness in some "cosmic" context. Beauty (I repeat: not prettiness) is the visual equivalent of love. It is an experience without which we suffer as individuals and as a human race and often that suffering, that depreivation leads to extinction. Because if who cares…then who cares?
So I will say it again, in these coming weird and possibly terrible and frightening times, the issue in the arts will be empathy. Long live love!