In Search of Shared Meaning

Apr 05, 2019

I recently had a conversation with someone that was the kind of conversation I don’t have often enough. This person was a relative stranger. I don’t want to go into specific detail about the content of the conversation (no, it wasn’t about politics) but it was a fairly deep conversation of some consequence between two people who’s fundamental world views differed.

It is a conversation that I have in my head all the time. When it plays out in my imagination, my opinions and points are strong and strident and I lay waste to the opposing point of view like some philosophical tank, crushing all opposition. But with an actual person it was profoundly different. Because this person was curious about my view and curious about what they perceived as contradictions in it, my position became much more nuanced. Their act of listening evoked some version of listening in me and I found myself not crushing them with my arsenal of logic, but relating to a human being with a life and a brain and with whom I shared a lot in common. 

I don’t think either of us significantly shifted our positions concerning the central topic of our interaction, but I know that my thinking became more sophisticated, more nuanced and more human.

In reflecting on this conversation and what made it possible, I realized that even though we differed in significant ways, there was a foundation of shared meaning undergirding our interaction. It is not obvious what that shared meaning was, and I would have great difficulty defining it, but it provided a foundation for us.

There are three public arenas in which we as a society create shared meaning: Journalism, Education and Art. I am aware that many people find a form of shared meaning in institutionalized religion, but there is a principal in the design of this American experiment which says that religion is an individual thing, and cannot be imposed on or taken away from anyone. Someone might say that politics is an institution that creates shared meaning, but I would argue that although it sometimes does this, it is more true that politics feeds on shared meaning, and by doing so depletes it. 

I am not going to focus on journalism here right now, not because I don’t think it’s important but because journalism is tied so closely to the technological revolution our species is going through. Because of this, journalism is going through a fundamental transformation right now that is difficult to simplify. I will however say that one of the reasons why the current transformation of journalism is in many ways a crisis, is that for journalism to play its role in society, it needs a healthy and functioning education system.

I somewhat romantically believe that schools used to be institutions where one went to become a more full participant in humanity. Much of what one learned in school was practically useless but contributed to a more full, well-rounded understanding of the world. In many cases historically, the world view of these institutions was patriarchal, imperialistic and not as enlightened as we would like on many levels. But overall they did a good job of creating citizens. Now, education is seen as a means to prepare one to participate in the economy. It is preparation not for life but for career. We talk about the ROI of a college degree as if it were a literal financial investment.

One of the most exciting moments that I remember from my own formal education was in a chemistry class at the University of Minnesota. The professor was talking about entropy and how the laws of thermodynamics meant that the total amount of disorder in the universe must always go up. While he was talking about this he was mixing some kind of concoction in a flask. He talked about how people used entropy as an argument against evolution because how could primordial ooze organize itself into a brain without violating the laws of thermodynamics? At this point he showed us that the material in the flask had crystalized, and he asked us: What’s the answer? How can this liquid have organized itself into crystals and still increase the amount of disorder in the universe? What needed to happen for evolution to not violate the laws of thermodynamics? I had a flash of realization and burst out “It’s hot!” He ran up to me and held the flask out for me to touch and sure enough, it was giving off heat. He smiled. Not because I had understood that all the earth had to do for evolution to be possible was give off heat, but because he saw that I had learned to think in a certain way.

I can’t point to a single dollar that I have made in my life that was the result of this incident, but I consider it a foundational event in my development as a human. I wish I had studied more math and science in the same way that I wish I had not quit my piano lessons. Not because I want to do those things for money, but because they are doorways into richer human experience.

When school is about preparing you for participation in the economy, it is about making a consumer. It is about you. A consumer is someone who participates, through negotiation, in the marketplace. It is someone with a salary.

When school is about preparing you for participation in humanity it is about making a citizen. It is about us. A citizen is someone who participates in dialogue and debate. It is someone with a civic life.

Whereas a citizen is engaged in the debates within the growing consciousness of a larger us, a consumer is polarized into the zero sum game of us vs them. Which do you think is the dominant force in our society right now? The way we run institutions has consequences.

Art is the quintessential unnecessary thing. If the role of education is to put you in touch with that which is not necessary but essential to life, then art is the grand prize.

But art suffers a similar problem to the one we have in education. When we ask art to participate in the economy as its primary mode of being, we commodify art. The value of art becomes the dollar value of the work of art. This product oriented attitude puts the social value of art on the piece of art instead of the artist. There is an argument to be made that if a piece of art is liked by a lot of people then it will sell well, therefore it is a form of democracy and people are voting with their money. This is only partially true and it is reductive to think of art within the duality of thumbs up or down. Essentially, the argument being made for keeping art within the bounds of capitalism is that the invisible hand of the market is capable of making great art. I do not think there is good evidence of this being true.

I have been exposed to and enriched by a lot of art that I do not like. Much of the art that I like is art that I did not like when I first encountered it. I have the same relationship to brussel sprouts and broccoli. It is a dangerous thing to say, but there is an element to art where the art is the authority and we must stand in relation to it. A story that has always carried important meaning for me is about a young person who goes to their teacher and says, “How can I find truth?” The teacher instructs them to go and look at a certain painting. When the student returns the teacher asks “What did you think?” and the student answers, “Frankly I didn’t think much of it.” The teacher nods, smiles and softly says: “It was not the painting that was being judged.”

There is danger here. Authority is power, and power is corrosive and subject to abuse. There are difficult questions of who decides what the valuable art is. And how that gets communicated. That it is difficult does not make it unnecessary. To simply allow the market to assign value escapes this question without really answering it.

I have always been a proponent of robust government support for the arts. We have never done this well in the United States, and it feels further from us than ever, but like health care, I don’t understand why this is so hard for us to grasp. I don’t see any practical way to disentangle art from the economy without a role for the government. Of course we need to design this in a way that preserves the political autonomy of art and artists, but that’s the hard work of designing a good system. 

I’m alarmed  that the last time I heard any political candidate talk about art or anything like a cultural policy as something relevant to a campaign was back during the controversy surrounding the NEA’s support of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s. There are plenty of industries that are routinely discussed in national debates that employ fewer people than the arts. So as a simple question of representation, this is perplexing. Part of the reason for this is that this lack of dialogue has become normalized. We don’t expect our politicians to talk about art, because we’ve never expected them to. Things are important when we make them important, and we are routinely making art irrelevant to American life. This has consequences.

When I sit in a theater or stand in a gallery or attend a concert, I am experiencing something with a group of people who I do not know. I may be sitting next to someone with whom I share very little crossover politically. But we are having a shared experience. We are caring about a character or caught up in the suspense of a story, or laughing at a joke, and we are doing all of this together. It is through this kind of experience that we create not just meaning, but the shared meaning we need to have the kinds of conversations our society needs.

This is why I don’t like a lot of overtly political art. When the artist’s politics are on the surface of a piece of art, it acts as a filter and sorts the audience. It often assures an ideological homogeneity to the audience that results in an abdicating of a huge part of art’s civic role. An important role of art is to create an ecumenical space within a fractured society. We don’t do that by making art into a megaphone for our own views.

I am not saying that there is not a place for overtly political work. I definitely think there is, but I think we should be real about what this kind of expression is doing. I think we are delusional if we think that people’s views are going to be significantly affected by the political message in a piece of agitprop. It is entertaining and comforting for those who already agree with it, and that can be important and valuable, but that’s about it. I am personally much more interested in and find power in work which can cut across political debates. It is in work like this that I feel a potential to open up people’s ability to think and feel.

In the same way although I think highly of people who feel called to political activity and activism, I do not think that all citizens should be activists. I think all citizens should have informed opinions, but I don’t think that should necessarily be the focus of their lives and activities. This may sound like I’m not sufficiently alarmed by the current erosion of democratic norms and the very real threat to certain groups of people in our world. Trust me, I’m alarmed. But there are many roles to be played within a society. And in large part I think we are in the situation we are in because we have failed to tend to the deep roots of a diverse culture.

I am keenly aware that I’m saying this from my point of view as someone who has a choice. For far too many people, their role in society is dictated by their circumstances. 

There is a fundamental thing that I have learned in my life. It is one of the most important lessons out there: There is only one person over whose behavior I have even the illusion of control, myself. I think this is inarguably true. Despite this, we all have the strong tendency to define problems in ways that require someone else changing their behavior or minds. It is much more productive however to try to frame the statement of the problem as something that requires you yourself to modify your thinking and/or behavior. I find this difficult in our current climate. But that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.

Art is heat and life and meaning. It is a thing. It is not the absence of something. It does not happen on its own. It is intentional. It will not happen unless we make it. It is not natural or inevitable. It is amazing and weird and worthy of attention and value. It must be defended and treasured.

Winston Churchill is a truly flawed figure. I find his role in history to be decidedly problematic. However there is a story about him that I deeply love. It goes something like this: During the blitz, when London was being bombed by the Luftwaffe, an American officer asked Churchill why they don’t close down the theaters. Churchill responded with something to the effect of: If we closed the theaters, then we’ve lost. That’s what we’re fighting for!

This is indicative of an understanding of art’s importance to a society and culture with which I resonate deeply. In the United States we are quick to jettison art at the first sign of trouble, and since there is always trouble, we always jettison art.

The way to make something important is to make it important. As artists, it is our job to create the context in which our fellow citizens might find shared meaning. This is incredibly important. We must make important work. We must make work from the standpoint that art is the most important thing in a civilization. We must make work that makes that obvious. We must see that it is our job as artists to make the most important thing in a civilization. That is who we are and we must take responsibility for it.

In these troubled times as I search for shared meaning, I find it heartening to remember that art is a thing. Banality is not. So I will try to spend more energy lighting the candle of art than I do cursing the darkness of banality. Art is a thing to be attended to. And it matters.

Banality is the absence of art. And banality is the perfect environment in which evil grows.