Keeping Faith in the Transformational Power of Art

Thoughts on a Daunting Question: Can Art Change the World? | Ruby Josephine

I started and stopped about three different blog topics this past weekend as I sat down to write. I wrote a list of several possible recipes I could test and whip out, scoured cookbooks and pinterest for inspiration. Somehow, though, I could not make any of it stick, so I am just going to write straight from the heart of where I am right now, even if perhaps it is a little bit scattered. 

I am feeling slightly paralyzed by the world these days. Good little things are happening around here in my bubble, but the big things out there cast shadows over us all. Hurricanes, politics, marches, rallies and too many untold stories of injustice. After the initial shock of news wears off, how do we even begin to respond? Ignoring the big events is not an option anymore- it never was, really. 

However, where does an artist fit in? 

How should a blogger react? 

Can our responses really create change?

These are questions that I ask myself and hear rumbling around every time something big happens. Which seems to be on a daily constant, bombarding basis.

The truth is, I do not have a concrete answer to either one of those questions. I was raised with the starry-eyed and hopeful notion that art and writing are irrefutably important. Not to say I do not remain hopeful and stick to that belief, but the starry-eyed-ness has dimmed a bit in shadow of the world’s current reality. I am hopeful, but like many people, I am frequently unsure. 

We need more follow up questions, more real conversations. 

When I was in Montreal visiting my brother, a circus artist, we had a conversation over eggs and bacon and breakfast poutine about what it is to be a performing artist. Being wiser than his years (and possibly even mine), he said something along the lines of, “It is such a weird thing to be a performer when you really think about it. People pay money to come sit in a chair in the dark and watch another human being make a spectacle of themselves. Why? What does it matter? But the fact is, it does matter, especially these days. I think we need artists in America more than ever before.” I am paraphrasing, but the core message of what he said is spot on. I think we need artists in this world more than ever before. 

One of my inspirations, Maria Popova of Brainpickings, wrote the other day about Frederick Douglas’s words on art being a “force of cultural progress.” He said, 

“Art is a special revelation of the higher powers of the human soul.
The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself … so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation, is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress… It is the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the ideal contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible.”

Acknowledging and dealing with criticism in order to aspire to something better is the first step towards any progress, be it personal, communal or global. Art has the power to reflect society and community back on itself, seeing things from all angles. That is largely why art is so important these days- all of these events happening in the world need to be assessed from every angle, every perspective, in order to be properly absorbed and transformed. If we, as creators, make things with this source of integrity and reflection, changing the state of things becomes possible. Art can be transformational.

However, I will say that making a piece of art, writing an essay, or choreographing a dance are almost impossible tasks to complete if your end goal is “change the world” or “make the world a better place.” The prospect is too daunting. I find myself getting paralyzed inside of this mentality and almost giving it the power to halt any new project in its tracks or stop my finger from hitting the “publish” button.

Sometimes I have to reach smaller to feel larger. Things that I choreograph probably won’t change the world, but maybe they could connect with one or two people who are inspired to make something new, that inspires one or two more people, and so on and so forth. This is what I have to remind myself when I lose faith and trust in the artistic process. It matters.

Faith is imperative to authentic art-making. When we act or create from a place of mistrust, we build more barriers than bridges. To make art is to trust. Trust the process, trust yourself, trust that the world will receive you and that even if not everyone likes what you do, you will connect with enough people to make the work worthwhile and to change some perspectives. Make people see things from new angles.

All I can do for now is trust my art, trust myself and keep dancing, writing, blogging, creating. Maybe an artists role in this rapidly-changing, tumultuous world is not crystal clear, but it has the faithful and powerful ability to evolve as needed. With this self-reminder, I am warming my muscles out of paralysis and starting to move towards new creation, taking small, reachable steps into the bigger picture. As Emily Dickenson once said

"I scarcely know where to begin, but love is always a safe place."