Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “All art has this characteristic: it unites people.” October is National Arts & Humanities Month, a good time to ponder Tolstoy’s claim, especially as the chasms of our differences continue to widen. Up and down the centuries, the power of the arts has drawn people of different creeds, political views and generations into a shared admiration. In its vibrancy and complexity, art reminds us of our humanity, our deep longing for beauty, and our desire to be drawn into mystery.
In 2017, researchers at University College London conducted a study on theater audiences attending the West End production of “Dreamgirls.” As the performance progressed, researchers discovered that the audience members’ heartbeats had synchronized with each other. One of the researchers later wrote, “Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience in the audience members.” Each individual fed off the response of the audience as a whole — the gasps, the laughs, the held breaths — resulting in harmonized emotional highs and lows.
Similar research done by scientists at Hokkaido University in Japan revealed that the visceral response individuals feel at a live show can’t be replicated by watching the performance on a screen or listening to a recording of the music. Sadly, in the days of Covid, a packed theater is cause for alarm, making digital consumption of art more mainstream than ever. But it doesn’t have to stay this way.
The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that a crisis can no longer unite our nation. Differing opinions turn into arguments, arguments into feuds, to the point where the Hatfields and McCoys begin to look well-adjusted by comparison. Yet buried beneath the scrap heap of angry tirades and bruised egos, we recognize there’s more to life than winning the argument. As such, we must embrace those few square feet of Common Ground left to us. This includes embracing the arts, not as an afterthought, but as an integral component to our community moving forward. The evidence is clear: a crisis won’t unite us, but the arts still can. Art can help us relearn what it means to be a community, to balance moments of tension with moments of connection, to turn disagreements into conversations. And who better to teach us this than artists, the guardians of beauty and mystery.
Artists have an incredible ability to reconcile opposing forces. Think of the flatted notes that give haunting dimension to Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit.” Or the interplay of light and shade in Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew.” Artists lead with beauty by offering their unique insights into the human experience, fusing together the jagged edges of inspiration to create something new and whole. But in order to lead, artists need our help.
As the pandemic lingers on and the weather turns cold, most arts programming will have to move inside, posing innumerable problems. Therefore, we must lean on the better angels of our nature if we want to reap the benefits of a thriving arts community. This means masking when a gallery asks us to mask; purchasing tickets ahead of a show instead of at the door to help a performing group plan ahead; accepting that some organizations will require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test in order to attend the performance. And it also means advocating for the arts’ longevity in our community. Right now, elementary school music programs teeter on the brink of elimination, and many arts venues are falling into disrepair due to a backlog of deferred maintenance. If we value the arts in our lives, then we have to show up for the arts: advocate for a fully funded education system, and tell our leaders to prioritize the arts in their budgeting and community planning.
The fractures inflicted by the pandemic are widespread and the world will no doubt feel the repercussions of this crisis for years to come. But in these broken places — where our humanity lost its way or despair threatened to overwhelm us — we find the artists. Standing in the breach, they remind us of the beauty of our existence, and the hope that we can beat with one heart again. We are nearly two years into a dark period of our history but, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing.”