An Argument for (Freedom and) the Arts

“Education means only this – that the lively fearless curiosity of children must be fed, must be kept alive.”

-Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing 

Build a Culture, the Maestro repeats, urging us young clams to burst open only when we have matured together – assuaging us, that when we do burst open it will be in a space that will hold us and keep us, even when we steer away, change professions, or leave all of this earthly business to take up another spiritual vocation.

Bear with me, young clams. It is a long journey on this road, and our feet must be shucked ready by Time and the Elements.

In the Theatre we are told to carve space with gesture and timing. We are taught that Time is not in itself, Time – never a specific amount, but only the way it is apportioned, always a nuanced relativity. The way Dostoyevsky spoke of his experience being sentenced to death: as they lined up the prisoners, he desperately rationed his final moments. With some surprise he noted his ignorance of how every moment, every breath even, can be divided up into small bits, and each bit is a lifetime. The sun on his face. The blade of grass swinging to and fro by the breeze. The clouds carting by. The tremors of every face around him. Each bit of breath marveled at, and each bit of life holding within it an immeasurable possibility. More so, even: each bit of life holds within it the opportunity to appreciate it.  

In other words: an oak with the trunk of a thousand elephant feet, a tree that is protector and caretaker and grandfather – this oak will, every year, make hundreds of tiny little acorns. Each acorn holds within it a promise. Some of the acorns will end up being spearheaded onto children’s stick scepters. Some will be made into stick figures, an acorn being the face of every traveler who wanders into country unknown, cap on head. A few will rot. Some will be chewed up by squirrels, who know an acorn only for the literal edible content of its character. And others will land in the soft dirt and be mothered into that strong beast that is an oak tree.

Who can say that acorns all have the same destiny, though all hold the same promise of life within them? Even if they do all look the same to us, people? Who is to say if the oak tree itself knows that, in its tremendous creative effort, it feeds the squirrels and delights the children, and provides more food for the soil, and that only a few of its little ones will become oaks? Who knows these things? Who knows themselves as a unity, as a chain, as a thing that is connected – me to you, and you to something else, and the acorn at the end of it all, doffing its cap and telling us – I am on my way, I am on my way to somewhere other than here. 

How then do we teach our acorns? How do we teach little human acorns in little human schools?

We cut funding and we cut the Arts. And then we artists are left to perfect our craft and argue for it in language heavy and foreign to the very practice and culture of the Arts – for the Arts are simply about excavating and creating Beauty.

What makes the Arts necessary, they ask us? The politically kosher arguments rain down from on high: the Arts make us better people by exposing us to our common humanity, by making us empathize with one another, by promoting cross-cultural understanding, bladdy bladdy blah blah blah.  

Nothing meaningful there, really. The form utterly resists the content. Tell me, my friend, would you put a kitten in a shark’s jaws because the shark’s tongue is warm and soft and moist and kittens like warm and soft and moist places? That is what it means to argue for the Arts in Schools within contemporary platforms – conferences and curtailed grant proposals, and management and bureaucracy and all kinds of other wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong spaces for the magic that is the Arts.

The Arts need no explanation or justification. The Arts stuff themselves in all spaces. The Arts are doodled in moments of spacing out, on the sides of notebooks, in the margins; the Arts sit outside the door and beg; the Arts count sheep at night and fall asleep under palm trees in the desert; the Arts are what we do when we are alive, because we are creators, and we are connected to the rest of the world, and Nature is the first Artist. 

(Besides, how can we argue for some of our more queer artistic creations – like money, and economics – and then say the others are not necessary?)

Cutting the Arts in Schools plays on a couple of fundamental assumptions and fears:  

1. If we don’t discourage children from painting and acting and playing music, then that is all they will want to do. Ever. They will get it in their heads that they are something special and they will go off and be poets and talk about love through still, enchanted nights, instead of being productive and contributing members of society.

2. Arts don’t need money because everyone does artsy things occasionally, and they don’t need a lot of money to do them. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you don’t need the Arts to survive. You need to learn how to be pragmatic and communicate effectively and the good life you can hope for will happen, (or not), within your family unit and your church, where you can be part of a community. The family is sacred. And Church. And that’s it. 

Yet we also know (at night when you can’t sleep, this bites on your ear, hard) that the Arts need money, and children need the Arts, and we need to become human and we can’t do so without Art. And in fact, while we are at it, we all need to rethink the values of our society and we need to make our teachers our leaders instead of our lawyers, and we need to rewrite our laws, and we need to all be better to each other all the time, and this thing called money isn’t working, and neither is the fact that we are lonely, and neither is the fact that there are people out on the street who don’t want to be there and there are empty houses that they could live in, and there is food to feed those who have no food, and if everyone was paid a universal wage then bureaucrats wouldn’t be forced to prove their worth all the time by making people’s lives hell and instead people would do only as much as is necessary for them to do, only as much as is absolutely necessary, because it is in the nature of every human being to procrastinate on the things that are not absolutely necessary.

Then we could all be free to love one another and live in harmony with nature and engage in creative play – which is what Art is. 

For the Arts are like Nature. The argument for them cannot be made until you change your priorities from dry, gray utilitarianism to the Truth.  

Remember: Nature is not something that we have the power to decide to protect or dispense with. Nature is our Mother, and our Father. Nature is the fundamental relationship – because everything is relationship. You do not save a tree because it is a tree. You do not preserve a tree, because a tree is not a jam. You do not conserve a tree because a tree is not corn to be saved for later, or a painting to be protected against the ravages of time.

More importantly – you do not preserve or save or conserve a Tree because life is not about preservation or salvation or conservation, and this is what Artists understand, this is the Truth we peddle: Life is for Living, and Life is for the Living, and we are all living together. 

Similarly, the Arts are a form of relationship – our relationships with the intangibles of our lives, the intangibles that change us, that save us, that protect us, that form us, that relieve us, that heal us. But until relationships are at the core of the society we are building, we will not see the Arts supported, no matter how many matter-of-fact arguments are made in very-important-places.

Tell me then, my Friend: would you put a kitten in the mouth of a shark? For efficacy and the appeal of the surface understanding of things?