The Art of Change
The Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.S. Merwin passed away at the age of 91 last month. Merwin was one of three artistic icons that inspired my life-long involvement in the arts. Coincidentally, the other two – choreographer Paul Taylor and poet Mary Oliver – also moved on this past year. These losses have me thinking about the role of the arts, especially in our society right now.
Art can change us individually. When we read a poem or watch a dance performance, we often pause to think about what it meant, how we felt, what the artist wanted to relay, or even just to enjoy its beauty. In those moments, something shifts. Art can illuminate the everyday in ways that help us better understand what it means to be in this world.
Some artists and arts organizations also use their medium to directly engage in a social issue. There are works of dance about racial inequities, poems about preserving our natural resources, sculptures about immigration.
But addressing a social issue through art can also be indirect. When I worked for José Mateo Ballet Theatre in Cambridge, MA, I recall the founder announcing a new initiative; we were hosting a seminar on climate change. Blank stares and skeptical looks followed. What did ballet have to do with the environment? José believes that there is power in the network of audiences, dancers, neighbors, and other partnering organizations. By mobilizing these networks, we’d create a powerful collective voice that could unite to elevate important issues, in this case climate change. I remember being so incredibly excited that two worlds I previously imagined to be totally separate – ballet and social justice – had collided.
There are countless examples of artists using their medium to this end. The New Hampshire Theatre Project in Portsmouth hosts an annual “Elephant in the Room Series” where they use theater to introduce and discuss crucial issues. Their most recent event included a play reading of a work focused on addiction as a family disease, followed by a facilitated discussion between the audience and a panel of sociologists, recovery experts, and community members. Why not utilize art to provide a platform for addressing sometimes taboo topics that are causing enormous pain within our communities?
W.S. Merwin started his own nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving land in Hawaii on which he planted over 2,000 species of trees that may otherwise have joined the growing ranks of organisms reaching extinction. He combined his passion for the natural world, which is what I loved so dearly about his poetry, and his prominence as a poet to do good.
We are living in a time that requires us to think outside the box when finding solutions. The arts sector represents some of society’s most creative individuals who contribute a kind of thinking that may help us move the needle. There are many pressing community and nonprofit needs, but I’d encourage all of us to also consider learning more about our local arts organizations. Attend a performance, visit a gallery, or have a conversation with artists around how they are engaging in their communities beyond sharing their craft. They are probably playing a larger role than you may think in addressing causes you care about deeply. Their thinking may also open your eyes to new ways of operating, renewing your own inspiration and passion.