Art in a Damaged World

When your chosen field is the arts – creating it, performing it, or writing about it – the entire pursuit can feel reduced to luxury or whim after an event as horrific as the elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook. Because the arts are so inextricably linked to observing the world and people’s experiences in it, because telling stories is a direct conduit to creating empathy, there is the collective notion that artists do it out of love and a sense of purpose. But experiencing the arts is essentially a luxury. Even when the work portrays people coping with poverty or violence or hardship, those in the audience usually aren’t. Besides the occasional free installment, the arts are available to ticket buyers; they appeal to individuals whose basic needs have more than been met. I’m not sure whether there is a different role for artists following disaster. Generally speaking, they should be good citizens like anyone else. They should find ways to donate, to comfort, to advocate for better policy. But artists also have a unique opportunity to sustain the relevance of troubling events though their work. To make it meaningful to people, to not let those events fade into history.

On the morning of December 14th, before learning the details of the Newtown shooting, I heard a news program about a proposition that governor Rick Scott has made for state universities in Florida. He advocates that Florida schools offer lower tuition for business-oriented majors and higher tuition for majors that are deemed less so: English, history, political science, philosophy, and theater. Though a student pursuing philosophy will likely have a lower paying job than, say, a student pursuing finance and would benefit from lower tuition, Scott asserts that individuals who do not directly improve Florida’s economy should pay the price, so to speak. Needless to say, the news was disappointing to hear, not only because it seems unfair to force students to pay higher tuition for fields that interest them, but also because the proposition suggests that understanding the world, its history, its sociological make up, how people function, and how we understand one another has little value.

We could use more empathy, a state of mind that naturally emerges from reading fiction, seeing theater, even studying political science in that it broadens our awareness of different communities and populations. The Public Theater’s artistic director Oscar Eustis has spoken about the importance of empathy, saying, “What is necessary in theater is also what is necessary in a functioning democracy.”

People have all sorts of solutions to the gun debate. My thoughts are that 1) a gun should be at least as hard to obtain as a driver’s license, and 2) that our health system should treat mental illness as seriously as it treats cancer. My choice for third is a more vague proposal and more wishful: that we create a more empathetic society where people recognize the dignity in others, even with whom they adamantly disagree. The economy may benefit from individuals with finance skills, but the world benefits from tolerance.

When I first began my MFA program in theater at Columbia, it was just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina. At our orientation, the dean spoke to the incoming class, remarking that it can be hard to justify having a life in the arts when there are so many basic human needs that first need to be met. He then said something that has stuck with me. “The arts are the last essential thing we need as a society. But they are essential.” There needn’t be any delusion that art solves the ills of this world. But neither should we underestimate its potential to inspire compassion, to restore dignity, to heal, to heal.