My wife and I went to celebrate the sixtieth birthday today of a very dear friend. We found ourselves attending services with our friend and her husband at their synagogue and I found this experience deeply moving, and for a reason I wish to attempt to share here.
The word community can be and often is used in two diametrically opposed ways. One conception of community focuses on an Us versus Them mentality with a cutting off of Others not of our own group, and the other view is an opening out to include into a larger group with a larger range of values – think of this as community writ small and community writ large. The congregation of this synagogue and our friends, active members there, actively seek to bridge the gaps that divide and that distinction and this was an underlying message throughout the room and for all who were there in it.
My wife and I were strangers yet we were welcomed in and accepted – and for who we are and as we are. I look around at the world we live in and at the news and I seen way too many barriers and too much divisiveness and over too many issues and distinctions for the good of any of us.
Competition can be good, and it can bring out the best of us, but cooperation has to be there too, and a positive coming together as community – as larger community and in celebration of our differences as well as of our similarities.
I live in a democracy, a society founded on the dreams of democratic principles and yet I see the values that brought my country together with religious and social tolerance as an ideal, coming under fire. Compromise is, or at least should be about finding a shared basis in values and priorities that our differences can be approached and resolved from. It is about finding answers that may not be ideal for any one of us but that are fair and acceptable for all of us. Compromise is not capitulation or a failure to support or honor community, but rather an opening up to possibilities that would address the needs and priorities of all. I look around and I see too much of the closing off and denying of Other that comes when we limit our vision to that of community writ small. We can and we need to do better than that.
One of the threads running through this service my wife and I attended was that of being grateful. I hold this in stark contrast to the cynicism that all too often divides us and state that when we strike out at or seek to isolate Other, we only harm ourselves. For ultimately We are Other and the Other we would deny is Us.
Social networking is all about building bridges and creating and sharing value. Good social networking is inclusive and it helps us to find value and opportunity – mutual value and opportunity that goes beyond our immediate social circles in connecting us to this larger community.
So we face pressures to divide and to declare anyone outside of our limited circle Other. And yet at the same time we see opportunities and pressures to open out and include as Us. And the pressures to divide and to cut off and to restrict ourselves to community small come from a sense of unmet need in the face of competition for limited resources. In times and places of stress and limitation, we build walls. The pressures to open out into community large are our opportunities to do better and actually live up to our professed ideals.
Social networking is one of the core themes and topics running through all of my blog, and for all of its various series. There is real synergy in good networking and in the sharing of created value it enables and causes. This expands the pie we have to divide and it holds the potential for opening the way to larger community. But this cannot start with someone else. It must begin with us as individuals and with as many of us as possible. That is what my wife and I were invited to share in earlier today. There are many groups that also seek to do this, just as there are voices and groups that would seek to divide and deny and to decry Other.
Reach out to a stranger and offer value. Participate in a social network as a paying-it-forward, and show your appreciation where others share this way with you. And Happy Birthday, my good and special friend, and thank you for being you.
I was initially planning on posting a third installment today to my Starting a New Job, Building a New Foundation series within my ongoing Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development (see postings 73 and 74 for installments to date for that). I decided I had to change my plans however, when I received a set of questions sent to me from an organization that had asked if I would agree to being interviewed. I will give this organization and the individual who sent this to me the benefit of the doubt and assume here that their intent was simply to be provocative. I still found myself sitting back in amazement at the tone and approach of the seven questions that were sent to me and I decided to pick up on one of them here with this posting.
The question, or rather the statement that I was expected to comment as if replying to a question began by quoting me from one of my published works: “The arts are a fundamentally creative voice and come from the expression of openness to new possibilities and perspectives.” It went on to baldly state, and I quote precisely “But art is propaganda!” The comment/question went on to briefly elaborate on this but the basis for that continuation was effectively included in this four word excerpt. And this prompted me to make two decisions – not to be interviewed by this organization and to respond to this challenge here. And this is a challenge, and to the arts and to all who care about them in the face of propaganda and the forces that drive it.
Plato is often thought of as promoting the benefits of philosopher kings in his Republic and there is an element of truth to that but it is also stated in this work that in an ideal state all poets would be killed. There is a marked and sometimes very open potential for conflict between the individual creative spirit and the state and this becomes more pressing and open as that state becomes more rigidly authoritarian. This applies to the written word and to the fine arts in their various forms and to all forms and outlets of creative expression.
The arts open eyes and minds to new approaches, visions and possibilities and that stands in stark contrast to the regimented and controlled of authoritarianism. And propaganda is in may respects an attempted taming and regimenting of this spirit and its expression to fit officially approved norms and in support of that authoritarian state.
I initially found myself thinking of the “art” of the Great Leap Forward in China and of the Stalin era in Russia and the Soviet Union, and of other spirit crushing regimes. It is not an accident that where Plato’s philosopher kings would silence and even kill poets, their counterparts and the supporters of those counterparts in the Great Leap Forward and in Stalin’s Russia took similar measures. Those they could not suborn, they marginalized, imprisoned, “reeducated” or killed. And the only creative expression permitted was expression in complete and rigid lock step with the received wisdom of the state. And that is propaganda, and that is an overly simplistic cartoon stereotype and it is at the points where reality diverges from this simple picture that this becomes most disturbing.
I raise the specter of Nazi Germany here – one of the most malignant and totalitarian states ever imagined let alone realized in all of history. And it had its sterile approved-format artistic propaganda in large measure even as its leadership looted the homes and museums of Europe of their art and of all ages and cultures. And it had its grand scale architecture with Albert Speer and his colleagues leading the way. But it also had artists like Leni Riefenstahl and her Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Nazi Germany also had artists with real talent and vision, but who had a malignant vision, or at least a willingness to whole heartedly suborn themselves into the Nazi vision.
It is comforting to think that good and skillful art and art of vision must stand in denial of propaganda and of all that it would support and sustain in sterile conformity. The real world, unfortunately, does not always conform to or sustain that though. So if rigid propaganda in support of extremism and authoritarianism is a stultifying challenge to art and to artistic vision and expression, this represents a more damaging challenge to it, and to society and culture as a whole.
Art does not in general support the restricting and limiting and it is in general a voice in conflict with that and in denial of authoritarian legitimacy. But it is not art per se as an abstraction, but rather the determination and vision of the individual artist who offers this challenge – usually. And when is art subordinated to evil and willingly so, it offers the greatest challenge to art as it can be in its highest, most liberating expression. The simple, comforting cartoon image of art versus propaganda does not always hold true even if it usually does.
As a final thought here, this is not about marketing and the way that artistic expression, or at least artistic forms can be and are used to represent any and all sorts of products – good, bad and indifferent. This is also not about art in a competitive and pluralistic society where its specific focus and message may be popular or odious and to many. And this is not about stereotypes and simple answers even when the context is dogmatically defined and limited. I write this to raise an issue and to provoke thought. The arts hold such importance and such potential, as do all forms of individual creative expression. But the picture is not always simple or pretty in detail. Art is not propaganda but some real art can be. And that is the real challenge.
Tomorrow I am going to shift back to my planned posting schedule and add my third installment to my series on career development and building a strong foundation as you go through the new job probationary period. The day after, I will add my next posting on building a successful online store startup.
This is my third installment in a series I have not gotten back to recently in the blog, but that I have found myself thinking about a great deal – Social Networking and the Arts.
I am drawn back to this for several reasons. First of all, I see tremendous sustaining value in the arts as a form of individual expression. I also and just as strongly see the arts as a medium of shared value and one that opens eyes to the value of the other. The arts express some of our highest cultural values and help us to see their counterparts in the cultural values of others.
I also wanted to come back to this series and now with this posting because of some of the feedback I have received from my first posting in it in particular: The Arts as a Celebration of Diversity, the Arts as a Celebration of Our Underlying Communality. Some of this feedback has been in general agreement with what I wrote and I appreciate that but some has been in disagreement and I in a way find myself valuing that even more. It is not that these readers do not see value in the arts but rather that they do not see the arts as a unifying opportunity for seeing shared value in our differences.
I would argue that this perspective would be justified, at least as far as countering my writing on the matter if I assumed that the arts hold a unique role and value in doing this. So I write about the arts in this series but I want to shift to an alternative example here and as context if nothing else – the Ancient Olympics.
Greece of the Ancient Olympics was in large part divided into separate nation-like city states, several of which carried names that are still commonly known to this day such as Athens and Sparta. These were busy, thriving communities and they competed on many levels, and all too often through military conflict as well as in areas like trade and commerce.
The Olympics were one venue where people could and would come together from all across Greece and its many city states to compete and to celebrate, and to worship and yes to trade and in goods as well as ideas. And this competition included events like the javelin throw that came directly from military skills but it also included events like poetry and I will add that sculptors came to the Olympics from all over as well. So the Ancient Olympics were not just athletic events as they are in their modern reincarnation. They included a much wider range of shared cultural expression and values.
And a point that is crucially important here in this discussion is that the site of the Ancient Olympics was one place that all outside conflict was banned from and certainly during the games. People could and would come together in peaceful competition in these Olympics even when they and their city states were in fierce and even bitter competition.
It is not that athletic events in and of themselves or poetry and sculpture in and of themselves, or all of them together in and of themselves can and will force the issue of creating opportunity for peaceful competition and cooperation. The arts in general cannot do this either. But the willingness to come together to share vision and value, and both with members of one’s own community and with others who are different needs content and context and the arts can provide that. The Ancient Olympics did this and it can be argued that the Modern Olympics have too from the way East and West came together to compete in peace and even during the heights of the cold war. The arts can provide content and context and a deeply felt imperative to share and cooperate.
I think of museums and the popularity of museum exhibitions and particularly where they offer to shed light and understanding of what to us are the other. And in this, “us” can mean any of us as museums seem to strike a deep resonance in any culture that can develop and maintain them. And arts festivals bring people together to share and to appreciate and to see wonders from other too, as well as offering opportunity to more fully see and understand self.
So I freely admit that the arts are not unique in offering the sort of value I wrote about in my first posting in this series. I am also quite aware that the arts can at times be subverted to very different more cutting off and even xenophobic ends. Though I add that a malignant expression of the arts and attempts to do this, thwart the spirit of artistic expression and of the artists themselves and tend to ring hollow – consider the impact of politically motivated mandates and restraints on artistic expression and how hackneyed and eviscerated of culture the results become. Look to the “stylized” artistry of any of the historic totalitarian states in this and how blighted their art became.
So the arts may not be sufficient to create the open sharing and appreciation of both self and other, but this openness is at least long term, a requirement for active, vibrant survival of the artistic spirit. And at least a spark of that spirit lives in most all of us as individuals and even if we never seek to create works of art. We still in our teeming numbers go to see it.
And I come back to the basic premise of my initial posting and of the second posting in this series as well as I write this. I will have more postings to add to this series, including updates on the World Olympus festival.
In my first posting in this series, The Arts as a Celebration of Diversity, the Arts as a Celebration of Our Underlying Communality I wrote of my own perspective on the arts as a voice of sharing of our creative diversity. I wrote that posting with this one firmly in mind, as I briefly mentioned an upcoming festival in the planning – World Olympus.
At the time, I simply stated that World Olympus will be a movable, ship-born festival that celebrates the world’s artistic traditions and cultures, and that it is intended to have a global audience reach. I said that this will launch on the West Coast of the United States and that our intent is to follow a global itinerary for the ports of call this celebration of the arts visits. I waited on sharing more details then but can share some of that now as many of our early-stage planning starts to come together. Following is a press release drafted by one of my colleagues in developing this soon to be ongoing event.
Come celebrate the
2010 WORLD ARTS OLYMPUS
On board the famous Queen Mary Ship as she takes center stage hosting the world press launch of the most important traveling cultural arts institution in the world.
As we get ready to launch an inspirational ship of global goodwill that will soon be launched carrying artists from all cultures that will open hearts and embrace audiences on stages in cities worldwide. This traveling worlds fair of the arts, representing all countries, will create an international display of world culture free for the public in local theaters, parks, senior homes, universities, elementary schools and all venues were ever an audience can assemble as the ship goes from city to city. This historical event will not only be a milestone in global understanding, but a milestone in the minds of all who believe that world peace starts form the heart. This unique press launch will take place on the famous Queen Mary ship, permanently docked in Long Beach, California, June 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th. The Arts Olympus, a none-profit organization, will replicate, on the Queen Mary what will be on the touring ship with live dance performances, concerts, art displays, children’s amusements, global film festival, a record breaking international food buffet and a grand star studded Olympus World Peace Awards gala.
To me, World Olympus is first and foremost an opportunity for open sharing of our collective and individual creative spirits and a denial and a breaking down of the barriers that so often come to divide us. I write of our desperate need for this coming together in my first posting here, and I was drawn to work in support of this venture as I see this as a vehicle of hope. World Olympus and bringing the world of art to you – I will be adding updates to my blog on this and on the issues and events in setting this up and bringing it to fruition. I will simply add here that I feel a tremendous sense of excitement of the potential of this and that I will be sharing word of this upcoming and developing festival through a number of online groups as well.
The world news has carried stories of our division and our divisiveness as an ongoing drum beat for a number of years now. This did not by any means begin with the 9/11 attacks in the United States, though they did bring this into sharper focus for many, and not just in New York City and Washington DC, and in that field in Pennsylvania where yet one more plane was brought down.
This posting is about the arts, and about our developing multi-direction capability to network, communicate, create and share. I begin it with my thoughts divided between this positive and the equally compelling negative that would drive people to organize towards terrorism and others to follow their lead in carrying out terrorist attacks.
I find myself thinking of this stark contrast and in what it says about our capacity both to accept and embrace difference, and to deny it and push it away with violence.
The arts are a fundamentally creative voice and come from the expression of openness to new possibilities and perspectives. A work of art can be beautiful but this is not a prerequisite for it to be effective in reaching out and connecting artist and viewer. A work of art may be enduring but this is not an essential prerequisite either. I could add choice of media and format to this list of what can be more detail than essential. When I pare this back to the true essentials I am left with the sharing, however imperfect of a vision, and the vision is of pattern and flow and of the creative process in its essence. Art to truly be art is a sharing of creative vision and a drive to such sharing through unique and perhaps even idiosyncratic expression. Art is a celebration of our differences and of our underlying sameness, in value and in our individual and collective worth.
Terrorism is a denial of the other, and a seeking to damage or destroy it for being different. The roots of terrorism are negative and destructive, and deny the potential or validity of this creative sharing.
There are reasons why terrorists target places where people come together to create, and to share and to build common value. There are reasons why the earliest prehistoric and Paleolithic expressions of human creativity include objects that hold artistic form and value, even as many of them just as obviously served utilitarian function.
Lenin is known, among other things for having observed that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and I will add to divide. The purpose of art is to bring together and to share where that can span the entire range of emotions and feelings – both as a sharing of vision and feelings and as a bringing together.
I have been asked to participate in setting up a moving global art festival that is intended to bring together the creativity of many places and peoples to share with all peoples and everywhere. I see a profound intrinsic value in this in and of itself. I also see this as a defiant repudiation of that drive to division and denial that we face in the news so way too often.
I have been attending organizational and planning meetings for building the launch to this event, and in preparation for moving it forward. I will write in more detail of this ongoing act of artistic sharing – World Olympus in future postings but I wanted to start this new category in my blog by putting the arts per se in a very particular perspective, as to their role in our increasingly global society. There are those who would build walls of distrust and denial of others. The arts deny those walls, seeking to find the good and the commonality in all of us while celebrating our uniqueness and our differences. Great art rips us out of the inertia of our standard paths and ways of viewing the world to see everything from a new perspective. The world is filled with a richness in diversity of such perspectives, and that is what an ongoing event like World Olympus is intended to both present and celebrate.