Arts as an Engine of Unrest
Or, How the Arts Ruined a Perfectly Good Childhood

Art makes people happy. Lots of individuals and institutions are now looking at proving and understanding this link. To some it’s the holy grail of arts impact. Who doesn’t want to feel good? Well… I don’t. Or, at least I don’t think that’s where the real power of the arts lies. For me, the arts matter because of their ability to do just the opposite.

I was raised in a tiny farming community in Northern Arkansas. We didn’t have a symphony. We didn’t have a museum. We didn’t have much “Art” to speak of. If forced to name the town’s cultural epicenter (and it would have required force to get the townsfolk to refer to any place as a “cultural epicenter”), most would have identified the skating rink. Yet somehow I managed to have a very happy childhood.

The older I got, the more exposure I got to art (and science, but that’s another post all together). I found that despite my rural setting, I could listen to opera on the radio. I could watch theater and ballet on television. I could check out books on fine art and even tapes of symphonies at the library. In those pre-Internet days, public radio, public television and the public library provided a gateway to these and other amazing new worlds… and I wanted to live there. (How are you going to keep a boy down at the skating rink once he’s seen – or at least heard – the Met?)

To quote the voice-over from every coming-of-age film ever made, “At that moment I knew my life would never be the same.” Yes, those art experiences gave me immense joy but they also woke me up. They showed me something different. They showed me that I was different. They made me question a worldview that had until that point made me pretty happy. That is the power of the arts. The arts can be the counterweight for complaisance. They challenge us. They make us think differently. They make us see differently. They start conversations. Those conversations can lead to understanding, which eventually can make us even feel and act differently.

So, why do the arts matter? They are a catalyst for and an engine of change. There’s a great formula for change that looks something like this: If Dissatisfaction with how things are now x Vision for what is possible x First steps toward that vision > the Resistance to change, then change will occur. I see the arts in every aspect of that formula. They can lift the scales from our eyes and help us truly see where we are (D). They help us dream about where we want to go (V).  They inspire us to get moving (F) and offer us a vehicle to rally around (R).

Change is not as inevitable as some would have you believe. Sometimes we need a nudge… or a swift kick in the pants. The arts delivered that kick for me and it shattered my previous idea of what my life should be like. The arts ruined my childhood but what they left in its place – curiosity, openness and empathy – has made my life infinitely better.

 

Comments

  1. Nicolle Bennett says

    This is such a great post Dallas, thank you – so much of the language surrounding art’s value is designed around the “happy” factor, but I agree that what makes the arts so important and integral to change are the fact that they, as you say, provide a catalyst and counterweight for complaisance – making them an essential component of the social innovations, creative philanthropy, etc. that are taking place.

    In case it’s helpful, author Jeanette Winterson, who wrote Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (1995), emphasizes many of the points you’re making; writing that “true art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

    Thanks again!

  2. Dallas Shelby says

    Thanks, Nicolle. Art can be a powerful component of change… social, cultural or personal. I’ve not read Art Objects but will definitely put it on my list.

    Best,
    Dallas

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