Vermont Arts Council

Democracy and the Arts

More than a hundred people gathered in the Vermont State House last week for the annual Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony, which recognizes outstanding artists and arts advocates. Standing in the State House — underneath the beautiful newly gilded dome, one week after the midterm elections, the same week that the world marked the anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the armistice that ended World War I — I couldn’t help thinking about the connection between the arts and democracy. There have been days recently when I have felt rocked to the core. And I have wondered, as perhaps some of you have, what is happening to our democracy and to the values that I was taught to hold dear. What does it take for us to live well together, to treat each other with reason and civility and compassion? I’ve been thinking a lot about the arts as an essential component of the answer.

Thomas Jefferson once famously said, “Democracy demands wisdom in its citizens.” I believe that’s true, but it’s only part of the truth. Democracy also demands art.

Arts and Engagement

According to a new survey by Americans for the Arts, people who participate in the arts are 20 percent more likely to vote. It seems that those of us who engage in the arts are also the most likely to be civic-minded and to engage in democracy. It may be true, in fact, that art calls us to citizenship. The practice of citizenship requires us to see that we belong to a republic that transcends our individual beliefs, or dreams, or fears — and to understand that we are responsible to each other. So think with me for a moment, about what the arts can bring to our understanding of citizenship, to our role as members of a republic and to our relationship to our fellow citizens.

Citizenship, like art, can be viewed as a practice. We need to practice — with intention — ways of relating to each other with respect and understanding. We need to be reminded of all the ways in which we stand on this earth together.

We know the arts can lift us above petty boundaries, and reveal our common humanity. They bring us perspective — the ability to transcend our personal point of view, our own immediate struggle or joy, to stand in the shoes of a person from another country or another race, someone who thinks about God or their job or parenting or their grocery bill or the ocean differently than we do. Someone who votes differently than we do. James Baldwin said he thought he was alone in the world, that his personal experiences were unique — and then he discovered literature. Here is one of my favorite quotes:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

Alison Bechdel, left, was one of six award recipients. Photo by Rachel Stearns.
Alison Bechdel, left, was one of six award recipients. Photo by Rachel Stearns.

It has become commonplace to say that art inspires empathy and compassion. But Baldwin is telling us something deeper — that art has the power to connect us first to what is truest and most authentic in ourselves. Only then can we understand each other. What could be more fundamental to our ability to be good citizens than the courage to fully recognize ourselves and our wounds before we turn to face each other?

Art calls us to citizenship. It prepares us for the practice of democracy. The struggle we face as individuals to create something meaningful from our own lives also gives us the threads that can begin to connect us to each other.

Writing the Story

One of my writing teachers gave our class this exercise: Write a poem of four lines. To begin, go to an ugly place looking for beauty. In the first two lines of your poem, write the chaos, weakness, and destruction. In your last two lines, write the beauty, find the order and the power. And I believe with all my heart that is what we need to do now — and what art enables us to do, to find creative solutions in the face of heartbreak and terrifying change: go to a broken place looking for beauty. First, call out and describe the chaos, damage and weakness that is evident all around us. Then awaken ourselves to the beauty, the order, the power. In writing our four lines, and reading them to each other, perhaps we can fortify ourselves and strengthen the bonds of citizenship that have unraveled.

There is one more aspect of artistic practice that is instructive when we think about the future of democracy, and that’s failure. We learn from our elementary school art teachers — the good ones — that failure is part of the creative process.  Nearly every effort is only a rough draft, which clears the way for the true work to come. Another one of my writing teachers used to say, “Those are all the pages you had to write to get to the poem underneath.”

When you fail as an artist, you learn from your misstep — and, more importantly, sometimes that misstep evolves to become part of the next dance or the next poem you will create. Artists are able to take an errant brushstroke or an oddly shaped piece of marble or wood and transform it into something wonderful, fresh and alive, perhaps even revolutionary. This is the aspect of art I am choosing to focus on right now, in our present moment. Now more than ever, we need to find beauty, to uphold truth, and to assert the power of wisdom, compassion, and perspective in the face of hate and chaos.

As artists, or as citizens, we don’t really have a choice. We are compelled to begin again, to try to imagine something new. And we have to trust that the medium we are working with — whether it is clay, stone, or democracy — is resilient enough, strong enough, to be disrupted or even broken, and then to be creatively rebuilt, again and again.

Let’s believe that the moment we are living through is only a rough draft. These are the pages we have to turn to discover the poem underneath.

Karen Mittelman is executive director of the Vermont Arts Council.