Can Art Save Your Life?

We live in an age where depression is epidemic. According to the Black Dog Institute, depression is the third largest individual heath problem in Australia, after heart disease and stroke.  1 in 5 people will experience the black hole of internal nothingness at some time, maybe an extended period, in their life’s journey.

We have failed to find a secular replacement for the problems for which religion was once a solution. We no longer understand how to survive within our allotment of finite resources.

The reality is, we have not been given a whole lot of information about what this Birth to Death Project is about. We’ve had to make it up as we go. We train our children to pretend they get it, lest they lose hope altogether and do something drastic. We have been pretending for so long, we have fallen into the trap of believing that it is the answers that matter, not the questions. We have lost the most basic understanding of all – the understanding that it is actually impossible to know anything for sure. As a society, we really believe the answers are available, if we just try a bit harder, stress a bit more.

As far as I can tell, no-one really knows what we are doing here. Faith seems to be the process of living as though our best guess is right. Wise people and false prophets abound. Platitudes appear on facebook like a plague of toads.

Our culture has a long history of engagement with the sacred (I use the term sacred in a practical sense: the elements of life that hold the greatest value and importance). Art and scholarship are the byproduct of this. It is what we did when there was time leftover from the consummate work of survival. We put our heads up and said “what else?”. We didn’t always do it well, or artfully, but we always did it. Some evolutionists argue that this is the quality that differentiates us most from chimps, our nearest biological relative. We ask “why?”

There was once a time, within living memory, when a person could not claim to be educated without being able to locate themselves in time and space,  physically, psychologically and philosophically. Developing an holistic internal landscape gave us the data we needed to reference, cross-check and move forward intelligently and sustainably. Certainly only the elite were educated. But all leaders and decision makers were drawn from this minority pool.

Culture and art are not a quick fix. They are a 25 000 year old tradition that quickened 5 000 years ago, and then again about 200 years ago.

I’m not saying that art holds all the answers. But understanding the process of the last 5 000 years of engaging with the right questions may be the best we can do. And that may be enough.

We Need to Talk About Western Culture

This is what got me thinking seriously about the need for education within the arts of western society:

I was attending a workshop for adult educators. One of the facilitators was an indigenous Australian. Another participant, whom I knew socially from here and there, put up her hand and addressed the indigenous facilitator. She said:

“As an indigenous woman, you have thousands of years of culture to draw from in your teaching. As a western woman, I am bereft of culture. I have been displaced and dislocated from my culture, and feel a huge sense of emptiness because of this.”

I was shocked to hear this. The speaker was an attractive woman in her mid-fifties, with long red hair. I had seen her playing both guitar and flute at various events around town. I knew her to be an outspoken community leader, educated in psychology, a confident public speaker and excellent educator. No-one, including myself, commented on her comment. However, it got me thinking.

Western culture, as I understand it, includes five thousand years of scholarship and creativity. Why then would a woman, the recipient of the best of western learning, feel “bereft of culture”? What inspired her to express envy towards a woman of a cultural background that included displacement, not to mention outright cultural oppression, in it’s recent past?

I started talking to people, floating the idea of starting a website with direct links to education in the western canon. These are some of the responses I got:

“What western culture?”

“Oh, yes. Western culture. What a disaster.”

“Why learn about white people?”

It began to dawn on me that although I had studied visual arts for four years in the late ninties, at a major university, in a major city, in a developed country, I could not tell you anything about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the origins of the Italian Renaissance, or in what year the Romans had withdrawn from England (the country of my most recent genetic heritage).

Trawling through my old university reading list, there was not a single reading from a publication dated more than twenty years previously. In fact, we had been expressly informed that anything written before the advent of 1960-70’s feminism was “located in patriarchal and colonialist assumptions and subjugated by hegemonic concepts”. Therefore, no longer relevant.

I began to feel I had identified a gap. Definitely in my own learning, but perhaps in that of my similarly dis-educated peers.

So began a journey of discovery that has been the most fascinating, sustaining and meaningful process on which I have ever embarked. The path is well mapped and illustrated, guided the elders of my ancestral story, many of them geniuses. Along with knowlege I have claimed a sense of belonging, wholeness, and, perhaps, the beginnings of wisdom.

You are invited to participate.

Read:

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster.

Hughes, R. (1990). Caravaggio. In R. Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (pp. 33-37). Harper Collins.

Paglia, C. (1992). The MIT Lecture: Crisis in the American Universities. In C. Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture (pp. 249-298). Penguin.