As we collectively emerge from our pandemic hibernation, like the Brood X cicadas on the East Coast, we are viewing our lives anew. Many of us didn’t have the luxury of working from home, or just scraped by, or had to rely on the kindness and generosity of friends, family, and strangers. And so we kept our heads down, doing our best to stay safe and keep others safe. Others of us, even though our jobs allowed us to work from home, didn’t do much outside going to the grocery store.
Now that we have the opportunity to venture out into public again for things other than basic necessities, I find myself thinking more about what it means to participate in the world and what it means to engage with other people I don’t know really well; in other words, what it means to be a human being.
There are many distinctions we hold as human beings over our animal cousins. Our capacity for spirituality is a prominent one – from which many other human capacities follow. Our sense of wonder and connection often stems from our sense of spirituality. The great thinker Aldous Huxley, author of A Brave New World but also a great philosopher, wrote eloquently about the difference between knowledge and understanding.i We can know many things that we can describe to others using words. But understanding at a gut level is something that can only be approached in descriptive words. Ultimately, it has to be felt. It was this understanding, about the human condition, about human connection, that I was missing during the pandemic.
Humans can approach understanding in myriad ways – meditative practice, prayer, intense study – the list is as long as the number of people one asks. For many of us, experiencing art in all its wonderful forms is an important way to approach understanding. A visit to a museum, the chance to listen to a live a concert, the immersion in a play in a dark theatre – each of these provides an opportunity for reflection on ideas the artist brings to bear through their art. Art can provoke a sense of awe that is unique and different than the sense of wonder you experience when staring up into space at night, or peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon. I am sure many of us have felt the vast expanse of humanity through a particular artistic experience.
Art connects us to powerful ideas and emotions – think of the now-famous mural of George Floyd in Minneapolis by artist Peyton Scott Russell. That mural is more haunting, and forces us to be more introspective, than anything a photograph of George Floyd could evoke. Art can allow us to express ideas that aren’t ready for words yet or can’t even be expressed in words. The poet and physician William Carlos Williams writes about this phenomenon in his poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:”
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Think of your favorite song – even on repeated listening you still experience something new. That is the power and depth of art at work.
Art can challenge us to expand our understanding about something. Perhaps we don’t, in the end, agree with the ideas embedded in a work, but the process of considering the work itself is such a valuable, human thing. Williams hits at the crux of the matter – without the ideas in poems, those ideas that do not come from the words themselves but rather the space between the words, we all lose something of our humanity.
Besides online concerts, digital museum exhibitions, and the like, we haven’t had much opportunity to put ourselves in those situations in which we can gain some spark of understanding about humanity – understanding that doesn’t come solely from words. So now, as we emerge from our pandemic isolation back into our society again, take some time to remind yourself of what it is like to contemplate art, and to reflect on our humanity.
This summer in Arlington, visit the 30 Americans exhibit at the Arlington Museum of Art, for example, or take in a live show at the Levitt Pavilion. The Levitt is experiencing record crowds already this summer – take that as an illustration of how much we crave experiencing art with other people. As a musician myself, I am also really excited to play music with other people, and for other people, again. I have already started drinking in all these experiences, and it has really reminded me what we’ve all been missing. Some part of me is whole again.
Plan some time to experience art live again this summer. It will make us all appreciate what we have as human beings and connect us to each other once again after such a strange year.