A few weeks ago, our current presidential administration released their goals for the upcoming year’s budget. And while I could turn this post into an epic rant about everything I hate about that budget, I am going to hone in on just one thing I loathe: the elimination of funding to the arts.
In my humble opinion, the undermining of the arts, much like the undermining of the press, is calculated and nefarious and serves as fuel for the other more headline grabbing and, eventually, more dangerous and dire issues. Here’s why. If you eliminate the arts, you close the door to learning. You cut off people’s access to experiences other than their own. In short, you burn bridges with the fuel of fear.
The arts are a uniquely human endeavor. Through the arts, we share our experiences. We seek to understand and to be understood. Whether through a piece of prose or a painting or a modern, dissonant opera, the arts allow us to mine our humanity and uncover the truths that connect us. Without the arts, we remain islands: islands of community, of race, of religion, of class, of affluence, of gender, of political persuasion. If this administration's goal is to divide us, to make us afraid of people who appear different or "other," eliminating access to and funding for the arts is as good a place to start as any.
And while artistic expression is undoubtedly a subjective issue – the concerto that brings me to tears may bore you right to sleep – I argue that the arts, and all its related pursuits, are at the core of who are as a people. Not everyone who takes a drama class will win an Oscar, but what they learn will shape who they are forever. In fact, I will go so far as proclaim that most every important thing I’ve learned about life, I’ve learned from the arts. So, in the vein of the new, oft-maligned (sometimes by me….) art form known as the “listicle,” I give you my top 10 most important life lessons we learn through the arts.
1. There is no “Other.”
When you act in a play, you are literally tasked with living in someone else’s skin, usually a skin quite different from your own. The challenge is to seek the heart of that character, and to find something there that you and your audience can relate to. That’s what beings them to life. The connection. Same same with living on this earth. As President Obama said, “There is more that unites us than divides us.” I believe that 1000%. And while we are all our own, unique flowers, with our own unique circumstances, we are all fed by the same energy and light. And the more we can connect to that, the better off we’ll be.
2. Teamwork is Everything.
An orchestra is not a collection of individuals or even sections working independently of one another. Yes, there are instruments that look different or sound different or that have different jobs, but they all have to come together to make a powerful, multi-faceted, cohesive sound. In one part of a piece, you and those in your group take the lead, but in another, you graciously support the section that picks up the melody from you and yours. Sometimes you have a solo, and sometimes you support the soloist with a one-note baseline. The point is we all have roles to play, and those roles shift and change, due to the task at hand. At work and in your community, it’s important to take on your job graciously and understand its part in the whole. It’s not about being the star all of the time. More often than not, life is about supporting others.
3. Different is Beautiful.
I’m not a painter, but I appreciate someone showing me a new way to look at the world. On any trip to a gallery or a museum, I can literally feel the scales falling off my eyes. Artists present me their world, or sometimes, my own world, but from a completely different perspective. The ability to see different realities at the same time is a kind of cultural and emotional fluency we desperately need all the time, but especially now. Blacking out the windows to other experiences or, dare I say, building walls between cultures does not make us our best selves. Embracing diversity and seeing its beauty and strength does.
4. Sometimes You Get What You Want, Sometimes You Don’t, But You Still Have to Show Up.
Just because you don’t get the clarinet solo, doesn’t mean you stop playing in the band. Sure, there is disappointment, but you learn to move on pretty darn quickly in the interest of the greater good. In fact, your love and pride for your stand partner almost instantly overcomes your own feelings of jealousy. Resilience is a dish best served early and often. The arts are a safe place for kids and adults to learn disappointment and recovery, as well as achievement and pride.
5. There is Nothing as Satisfying as Making Something.
To stand back from a drawing or sculpture or poem or story or dance and to be able to say, “I made that,” is pretty darn cool. American society is so focused on consumption, it’s easy to forget the simple pleasure of being a maker, whether you make a beautiful thing or a beautiful movement or a beautiful sound. I would argue that if more of us stayed in touch with our inner maker, the world would be a happier place. We don’t all need to make bespoke coffee mugs for our full time jobs, but if the pride you took in writing a really great presentation or making a pretty sweet sandwich could tap into your innate sense of yourself as a creator, job satisfaction would skyrocket. The arts teach us the crucial skill to seek artistry everywhere, even in the seemingly mundane.
6. What You Create is Ultimately Not Yours.
As a writer, while I’m working on a new piece, it is totally mine. It’s me and my computer, and nobody else. But the minute I show it to my husband, post it to my blog, or publish it somewhere, it takes on a life of its own. It belongs to the reader. It belongs to the world. My baby up and leaves me. Maybe it will call on Sunday, but I shouldn’t expect it to. I don’t make the child rearing metaphor lightly here. I work hard to raise my children to the best of my ability, but ultimately, their life is their own. I can lay a foundation, I can pour over the words, the actions, the intention, the character, but once my boys walk out the door, it’s on them. Understanding the beauty in creating and nurturing an idea, and then letting it go, is a key foundation for parenting, for love, and for any kind of work we do out in the world. My favorite yoga sutra introduces the idea of Abyassa and Vaigarya - the art of working steadily without attachment to the results. The arts teach that in bushels. And life requires a pretty good working knowledge of that very idea.
7. Kindness Matters.
When you’re creating with a team or even with your own self, kindness is the fuel. It feeds the fire, greases the skids, allows creativity to flow, and makes collaboration possible. As someone who has worked for giant corporate entities as well as a small, eight person start up, I will tell you kindness goes farther than smarts. You can be smart as all get-out, but without kindness, no one will follow you, or worse, you’ve only bought temporary loyalty with a salary. It may last for a while, but the crash will come eventually. Usually at the worst possible time. Work a little kindness and empathy into your work life, and you'll find a definition of success that's more fulfilling and, ultimately, more creatively satisfying.
8. Trust is the Key.
Much like kindness, without trust in yourself and your collaborators, your artistic effort is sunk before it begins. Sure there will be self-doubt, but at our core we have to trust in what we’re doing. We may not understand it exactly, but, as hard as it is, we need to believe in what’s coming through us and let it flow. An actor can’t be emotionally raw in a scene without complete trust in her scene partner. I can’t be emotionally raw in relationship without complete trust in my life partner. It’s scary as can be, but no risk, no reward. And the more your put your heart out there and find it fully supported, the easier it gets - both to trust and to be trustworthy.
9. You Get What You Give.
Practice your steps, learn the music, and you’ll at least be ready for the recital. Skip class, don’t pay attention to your partner, and disaster looms. Effort in, satisfaction out. That doesn’t mean the end result is what you imagine – I find it rarely is. I can practice all dang day and still have something wonky happen. I can prepare and work my ass off for weeks, and still fail. Miserably. But at least I know in my heart I gave it my best. And that effort, regardless of the result, is what teaches me the lesson at hand, and it’s what, eventually, gives me the strength to peel myself off the floor, and to begin taking that first, tentative, shaky step to whatever is next.
10. Love is the Answer. Always.
Art comes from love - of self, of inspiration, of creating, of whatever it is that speaks through your work. If we can tap into that, no matter what anyone else thinks, we have succeeded in our art and in our lives. Losing yourself in your passion is the closest thing we have to heaven on earth. Whether it be losing yourself in a drawing or losing yourself in a performance, surrendering to and trusting the river of love that moves us all along, is some powerful stuff. Learn to love through your art, and then practice that love every day of your life, in every possible action. Our lives are our ultimate creation. It’s the art form that matters most. And love makes it all happen.
So, go forth and create, in whatever way that makes the most sense to you. Find the art in the everyday and absorb the lessons that come with it. And if your particular art form includes a cellphone and the office numbers of your senators and congresspeople? Well, that is a beautiful thing indeed.