Would you prefer to live in a community with or without public art? (And no lol I don’t mean monuments to mediocre white men.) What impression does a town leave on you when you come across bright and colorful murals? Architectural features designed by artists instead of solely for function? How do you think about the interior of your home? Do you plant flowers? How do you feel when you see your kids with sidewalk chalk or when they bring home an art class creation?
Because of the corrupted perception of the art world we talked about in the last post, there’s a pervasive idea in contemporary society that art is “not for everyone.” There is a pervasive sense that the arts are a luxury. Advocates for the arts talk about funding cuts like a broken record.
In a sense, the arts are a luxury, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t for everyone. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced funders to choose between funding community arts programs and funding community social services, and museums understand that in this time of crisis, the arts fall second to meeting our immediate needs for food, shelter and safety. But this is a time of crisis. Why do we insist on living as though we are in a time of crisis during times when we are not? And what happens when the crisis is over, or in our present situation, when we learn the crisis will be ongoing, yet we must figure out how to somehow live inside of it?
The arts are a “luxury” in the sense that they do not meet one of our basic needs for survival. The arts are not food, shelter or water. They are not transportation or healthcare. But why…do we want to live in a society in which we guarantee nothing besides what we need to simply survive? Why do we accept the idea of anything as luxury that isn’t life or death? Why do we accept a constant state of crisis? That’s the state we create when we consistently defund and devalue education, music, creativity and innovation.
We have more research and data on how creating art can demonstrate positive correlation with mental health and wellbeing. There are many sources on the topic if you care to Google it up, but as a 2015 Psychology Today article notes, “in brief, creativity is increasingly being validated as a potent mind-body approach as well as a cost-effective intervention to address a variety of challenges throughout the lifespan.” Arts programs aren’t funded to reflect how miraculous they are, but as a society we are becoming more comfortable with the concept that creating art is good for us and our brains. Some museums have art making classes, ok, but where do museums factor into this conversation? If we see a vibrant public mural, are the only people benefitting those who applied the paint to the wall?
Thanks to Disney+, I recently rewatched The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is a weird segue but buckle up we’re going for it. Despite the fact that I didn’t feel emotional when I saw it burned in real life in 2019, for some reason I did watching it burn in the cartoon, because in the fake world of The Hunchback I could visualize the context of everything the cathedral has witnessed over nine centuries. Also probably because that movie is emotional and what with the attempted genocide of the Gypsies probably laid a foundation for me to be obsessed with social justice and bring you this blog today. Ok but the point is there are buildings and objects on this earth that have witnessed centuries of human history! And you can touch them!
Having access to see and explore objects and art created by humans generations before us connects us to something bigger than ourselves. Being surrounded by human expression pulls us out of that “crisis mode” and allows us to think and dream about what’s possible. Museums, at their best, are places where people who care deeply about human history use the best available resources to preserve and care for objects that reflect the enormous spectrum of human experience. Sometimes that experience is relatable. Sometimes it makes you want to drop to your knees in gratitude that you didn’t live to see that time.
Even as a museum educator and community engagement professional, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my own head around the idea of a “museum as community center,” because those conversations often have revolved around the idea of filling roles that people in our communities really need, like food banks, or health clinics. But what if instead we expand our definition of what is needed? What if the museum is not simply a repository of objects or a place to learn about art or history, but a community center for human creativity where folks can discover themselves and their place within humanity? Whether it’s stepping inside of a cathedral built in the 1100’s, lingering over a perfectly preserved piece of pottery, or delighting in the forms of a contemporary painting, enjoying the creative expression of another human can satisfy the social portion of our needs even when we feel lonely and lost. It can connect us to others but also – to ourselves. It can remind us that we maybe aren’t living out our years just to pay bills and clean dust off our tchotchkes.
It sounds tired at this point, but in 2020, “what makes us human” is a question we should honestly be trying to answer. Museums are not first responders. The arts are a luxury. But what they are as well are “second responders,” a place where once your most base needs have been met, to turn to think about who you are and why you’re here. When schoolchildren visit a museum on a field trip, the objective should not be for their test scores to improve. The objective should be that they walk out the door with more empathy and understanding than they entered with. Maintaining our culture is an act of resistance and resilience in a society that tries to force us to focus on progress and production.
My brother has been watching the Charlie Chaplin speech from The Great Dictator on repeat lately. In this 1939 film, Chaplin plays the roles of both a Jewish barber and the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel. After dedicated service in the Great War, the barber spends years in an army hospital recovering from his wounds, unaware of the simultaneous rise of the dictator and his anti-Semitic policies. I had only heard a few excerpts from this speech until a few weeks ago. But it seemed like the timing was right for me to hear the whole thing.
We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….
You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!Final speech from The Great Dictator Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S.
Museums do not have to look the way they do right now. We have work to do to break down the divisions between who’s voice is heard, who’s considered an expert, how we determine which objects belong in the public eye and which belong only to their own culture. The lovely thing about art history and history is that objects become talismans of humanity at its best and its worst that we can use to remember how we got to this point. At their best, museums are tangible community centers we can go to remember we are not machines or cattle, but humans. As long as men die, liberty will prevail, so maybe right now, this magical power of connection is controlled by the hands of too few. But why wouldn’t we work to make it better?
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