It was once proposed, by someone who liked our work, that it was Lincoln Center Institute’s (LCI’s) mission to “build bridges between art and life so that children may learn to see the world transformed by the artist’s vision.”
Very close, but… There is danger incipient in that statement that the students will only see an artist’s point of view. What’s missing is the students’ contribution in the process; what’s missing is the act of free will.
We do not want children to be handed an artist’s, or anyone else’s, vision; noble as it may be, it would merely replace a vision children have already construed from their individual experiences, or were “given” by parents, school, and friends. And we certainly aren’t in the business of selling visions of the world that are “better” than the students’ own because they belong to “bona-fide artists.”
We are not the repository of the final word on how the world is; on the contrary, we are here to convey that there is no final word and that the world is whatever you keep discovering it to be. When we introduce a child to a work of art, it is not because the work of art holds answers but because it is brimming with unlimited questions.
Nor is our purpose to devise a series of “codes” whereby a child can studiously decipher any given work of art and understand it: understand its meaning, intent, hyperbole, and perhaps a bit of the artist’s soul. Time: nineteenth century; Materials: oil, canvas; Subject: pasture, cows, sunlight; Meaning: serenity of nature; Intent: artist deplores urbanization.
This is art appreciation at its worst.
We want the child to grasp something more important, yet less tangible, than the brilliance of the work of art: you might almost say it is an attitude. The artist, without asking anyone’s permission, created a work of art that is more than a work of art: it is a testimony of his or her perception of things, and it is different from the one you or I (or the artist’s sponsor) might have. Even if we fully understand each other, even if our points of view merge, there are always subtle differences that define our individuality. In one artist’s world, a cow might fly over a house, a shadow might have a life, and a tree might be red. If the artists can envision their world in such an extraordinary, entirely personal manner—then so can we. By guiding students to find connections between themselves and the world with red trees, LCI enables each one to take a giant leap into a world of his or her own, where the trees are whatever color they think they are. If you can learn to accept the world with red trees, LCI says, you will accept your own flight of imagination. Freeing yourself to imagine as you please is your finest creation, even if you never produce a painting or a piece of music.
Perhaps one of the points of LCI’s instruction is individual freedom.
That concept is limitlessly expansive: If we can approach a work of art by understanding the process undergone by the artist in order to create, we can approach the world by understanding the processes of others in their own struggle to live their lives. Lives are creative acts to which myriad aesthetic approaches are possible, not just the one we may have been taught in our small world, where possibility may be subject to limitations.
One can argue that living within set limits is also an aesthetic approach to life. We all limit ourselves in order to organize our lives and define our preferences. However, the limitations we disagree with are not those you have chosen to help you plan your day. We oppose the vast limitations that, precisely, cannot bear opposing views. These are the limitations that forbade African Americans to ride in the front of the bus, the limitations that could find no other means of assertion than driving two planes into buildings.
This sort of failure to tolerate difference is the failure to imagine the possibilities of other worlds. It makes us weak in every sense: it weakens our moral fiber and our ability to survive in proximity to one another. It makes us less than what we can be.
Nurturing individuality in order to promote the sort of community in which cohesion is achieved through diversity is a paradox endemic to LCI’s ideology. Thus, through art we teach children something much vaster than art.
One word comes to mind: audacity. It takes audacity to be both an individual and a citizen of different worlds, traveling from one to the other with ease. It reminds me of the graduation ceremony at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, years ago. The speaker was an elderly, frail, and absolutely indomitable Hume Cronyn. He likened the budding actors’ first steps into the world of acting to taking a step off a ledge and into the chasm: an act of courage. Take the step, Mr. Cronyn counseled. Don’t be afraid. Discover that you can fly.
From “just a work of art” to such grand dreams of a better world, the step into the chasm may seem hopeless, the flying analogy naïve. LCI’s efforts may appear small in the grand scheme of things, frail in the face of social traditions where rigidity often seems the passport to success. We are increasingly curious about those who are “different,” yet many don’t necessarily want them as their next-door neighbors. Communities still thrive on the sameness of its members. There is a sense of comfort in living surrounded by those who vote like us, worship like us, harbor similar ambitions for their children as we do for ours. The local school is often the sole meeting ground of diversity.
But think about this: a long time ago, a few Greeks with unkempt beards and strange clothes, here and there throughout their nation, sat in the shade of the trees and waxed philosophical. At the time, their names were doubtless much less well known than those of the heroes of the last Persian war or of famed athletes. Among the few who were aware of them and their none-too-numerous followers, many probably thought them insane; others thought them wastrels who needed a real job. Yet they’ve managed to influence over two thousand years of cultural progress, and the debates they started are still alive today.