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.

New Technology Ancient Wisdom

I was having lunch with a Gen Y friend yesterday, and I criticised Facebook. Luckily coffee had just been served and lunch had not arrived yet. She pulled out her iPad, tethered it to her iPhone, and adjusted the shoulder pads on her 80s retro print dress, in which she looked great. She fixed me with a penetrating glare. I knew lunch was off to a good start.

It seems in my Gen X naivety I had gone about the Facebook thing in entirely the wrong way. Within days of signing up to Facebook, I had nearly 100 friends. I knew what several people I hadn’t seen for years, and had never had a conversation with, ate for breakfast. I had inspirational slogans, new age platitudes and conspiracy theories flashing before my eyes like some kind of Bergman nightmare sequence. I understood that Jane liked to share a fabulous little bottle of cab-sav with Eddie when he got back from overseas.

It’s not that I didn’t think about how to use the medium. I wrote a haiku in which I used Facebook as a metaphor for moments in time and the melancholy of seasonal change. In seventeen syllables. I got three comments. From the same person. Myra Wenttomyschool posted that her boyfriend had switched from imported beer to a local brand. She got 39 comments.

My inimitable Gen Y lunch date pointed out that light chat with friends doesn’t have to be deep, intelligent or meaningful. It began to dawn on me why I was never invited back to all those mother’s groups. But it also got me thinking about the potential in technology like Facebook, Twitter, apps, blogs, etc.

We are at an unprecedented time in history. What if we used this copious communications cornucopia we all carry around in our pockets and backpacks to enrich our minds and feed our starving souls? Imagine if we began sharing our feelings upon beginning to understand precisely how Aristotle differed from Plato and how that effected all of western philosophy?

Now, I’m sure I’m not the first person to ever think of this, after all, I failed rocket-scientist school. However, I don’t think I’m wrong in identifying a gap. In the “Age of Knowledge” how much of what we are sharing is actually knowledge? Does that fact that 20 thousand people read a blog entry mean that the fact that I sometimes put too much butter on my toast is relevant?