Art reveals who we have been, who we are and who we might be. Perhaps no other activity has given us such insight into what it was and is to be human.
During times of conflict — such as our political moment — art can remind us of the aspirations that bring us together in awe and wonder (hearing Bach or Bop; seeing a painting by Picasso or Jacob Lawrence; reading a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye or Juan Felipe Herrera). We’ve all done it: experiencing a work of art, we turn to those next to us to share (or, if alone, sense in our “deep heart’s core”) a wholeness, a fire, a joy, something that announces (sometimes a shout, sometimes a whisper): if human hands and human hearts can make this, this glorious gathering of colors or notes or words, then perhaps our species is, as Walt Whitman put it, “immortal and fathomless.”
Art can bring about that sensation, and that’s important to remember in our present moment of anxiety and uncertainty.
Of course, art can also bear painful witness — through poetry and fiction, painting and song — to the most lamentable acts: spoils of war, the evils of persecution and genocide, depredations of the environment. From Dante’s Inferno to Poe’s hellish psychologies, from Homer to Tim O’Brien, Anne Frank to Erik Larson, Frederick Douglass to Claudia Rankine, writers (and painters and musicians) have attempted to create an “answerable music” to the awfulness with which we treat ourselves, one another, and the world. These works create a searing sort of witness, no less compelling than the glory I mentioned first.
Conflict creates energy, and perhaps calamity energizes artists to find new forms, new clarion calls to answer their eras. Other artists (and people) chose retreat from the political moment and its attendant anxiety. I understand that retreat, but I wonder if such a response is a privilege afforded those for whom the crisis is less pressing. Terrence Des Pres, in his book “The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps,” says that the impulse to witness kept many suffering people alive — allowed many to retain their dignity by giving them a mission.
Our moment is not yet of such extremity, but that doesn’t make that example less compelling. The arts can serve to sharpen the needle point of our moral compass by demanding that we revisit both painful moments of human lamentation and sacred moments of human aspiration; the arts’ ability to take us to wonder and despair, beauty and brutality, agape and agony can help us to avoid slipping into a state of living where the possibility of outrage is dulled, and nothing can stir us to act.
For the possibility of action, whether it’s an act of imagination where our consciousness empathizes with someone or a literal going out in solidarity to support our sisters and brothers, is something the arts can prompt us toward and one of the main reasons why they are so valuable right now.
Tod Marshall is serving as the state poet laureate, a program sponsored by Arts WA and Humanities Washington.