The arts an antidote to violence

On September 29, 1993, an op-ed piece that I wrote appeared in The State newspaper of Columbia, SC. I can't remember what caused me to write it or send it to the newspaper, but I remember being astonished upon opening my newspaper at 5:30 a.m. several weeks later and seeing it published. It was an odd feeling to see newspapers lying in people's driveways as I went for my early morning run knowing that this piece was waiting for them. I received many comments and phone messages about it and for years people would tell me that they had it taped to their refrigerator door.

I've resisted the temptation to update or comment upon it, other than to mention I'm not proposing that artists are better people than non-artists. After all, the self that creates a great work of art may be different from the self that needs to takes credit for it or to promote it. My main point had to do with honoring that within us that is creative.

The title under which I submitted it was "Why We Really Need the Arts." The editors at The State changed it, for the better, I think. Here it is, exactly as published sixteen years ago. Following the piece are two paragraphs that were not included in the published version. They appeared before the penultimate paragraph in my original copy.

The arts an antidote to violence

We need the arts in our daily lives and in our schools but not, as some would argue, because they may have a positive impact on business and the economy.

That thinking is evidence of a default assumption that the arts are secondary and exist to serve the economy. They aren’t, and they don’t. We need the arts in our daily lives and in our schools as an antidote to violence. Violence is destructive and the answer to destruction is creation.

We are in danger of losing the ability to discern that which is truly authentic and creative in the human experience.

At either end of what we might call the “continuum of creativity” are widely differing impulses seeking expression. At one end is the impulse generated by neurotic tendencies. Its energy comes from the need to release, express, or respond to unhealthiness in our psyches. Much that is produced by varying degrees of this impulse is celebrated in our culture, from trashy novels to Serrano’s photograph of a jar of urine containing a crucifix to violent movies and television sitcoms. The segments of the culture that continue to resonate to these expressions do so because they contain the same unhealthiness. This is the "art" that seems like somebody else’s bad dream. It does not uplift and the only response it provokes in the truly healthy is, "I need to leave."

There is another form of creative impulse. It is a pure infusion and transformation of divine energy. This creative impulse celebrates healing and health. It is not a release of confused tensions, but an expression of deep spiritual values and a higher force. The St. Matthew Passion of J. S. Bach and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are examples of work that seem to come straight form the heavens. In addition to recognized artistic achievements such as writing a symphony, playing a concert or creating a painting, this impulse also seeks expression in our daily lives in myriad forms: raising a child, baking bread, making love. Those who make no claim of ownership of this creative force find themselves truly humbled and their intentions purified. Their work as artists consists of making themselves open and ready for what can come through them. And it is extraordinarily hard work. This is the art we need in our lives.

When I was a young boy I visited the New York World’s Fair. One memory dominates all others: Michelangelo’s Pieta. It was stunning. The marble appeared radiant, soft and alive with a power that extended far beyond the physical space it occupied. Time stopped for me, and everything grew quiet. I didn't know it at the time, but I had had a numinous experience. I saw the Pieta and today, almost thirty years later, my eyes well up with tears at the memory of the love and reverence that went into the creation of that work. The laws of cause and effect do not apply to the human spirit the same way they apply to the more prosaic aspects of life. The arts change us, but seldom on cue.

Much of today’s violence grows out of the frustration of the truly authentic creative impulses. It comes from despair and a sense of powerlessness. Healthy creativity becomes so blocked, either through abuse or lack of opportunity, that the only outlet left is destruction.

Children who have not learned a healthy means of creative expression will eventually turn to violence, in thought or in action, against others or themselves. This violence, or destructive force, permeates everything from our personal to our corporate relationships. This destruction ranges from thinly veiled judgmental and arrogant comments to murder, rape, and incest. This violence and lack of reverence are reflected back to us through our television sets.

I’m not a social scientist, psychologist, or businessman. I’m neither an arts educator nor an arts administrator. I’m an artist. I have no statistics and no studies. What I do have are tears for the children who are losing touch with their true creative power. And I have tears for the adults whose voices have become flat and whose eyes have grown dull. And I have tears for all of us when we make choices that take us farther away from the people we can be.

The answer to violence is not more prisons, more prosecutors, or more laws. The response to destruction is creation. The truly creative arts can help all of us in our struggle to change.

Paragraphs edited out of the original:

The violence on television that really damages us may not be the car crashes and murders, but the psychic violence of anger masquerading as humor as one character seeks to deflate another to the approval of the laugh track. Or the even more subtle violence of manipulation and control as characters try to get what they think they need. These instances of aggression and dishonesty have become invisible to us. If we could truly see the damage they cause, we would have to change. Instead, we have allowed these forms of violence to become culturally sanctioned and we have become numb to their effects.

I have no answer to the pragmatic question, "How will we pay for this?" But how can we afford not to? Throughout our history we have demonstrated a tenacious inability to recognize and take responsibility for the results of our actions. The problems we have are problems we have made. We all need to become artists, whatever our vocation, to help solve these problems. The solutions are written on the pages of our mistakes, our fears, and the places where we have become stuck. We all have access to the tremendous creative forces that can help us read these pages. These pure creative impulses make it impossible to hurt one another and isn’t that what is really wrong: We keep finding new ways to hurt each other and that some of these ways are culturally sanctioned so we can hide from what we’re really doing?

Guardian of sorrows

Art can sometimes be the guardian of our sorrows, holding them for us until we are ready to experience them fully.


This slow trek…

I know this, with sure and certain knowledge: a man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. This is why, after working and producing for twenty years, I still live with the idea that my work has not even begun.

—Albert Camus