“Be the change you want to see in the world. “ Gandhi
Chanting this often in my mind, among the examples that continue to inspire me are two powerful women, Susanne Langer and Jane Addams. Not well known to history their names are resurfacing as modern brain science stimulates a new generation of philosophers who point to the value of the arts in developing what is most meaningful in human beings. Art refines decision making with awareness of beauty as a guide to the wisdom of the body. Moving gracefully, in harmony with surroundings, has a feeling attached in the same way as does vertigo at the top edge of a cliff. The human mode of experiencing movement is the universal we share. Susanne Langer saw the body in motion and its analogues in the arts as the foundation of philosophy. In her brilliant summation, “Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling”, she makes clear the centrality of the range of human feeling as signifying values and directing choices. While more celebrated philosophers were talking their way into meaninglessness, she bravely marched into meaning and its subtleties; value, context, the revelation of being and how these ideas are best expressed in the arts. She ignited a trail of thought that is now reinforced by the areas of philosophy that build on brain science. An example of an academic powerhouse created by immersion in scholarship she could lay out a view of things that made sense in its honest inclusion of subjective reality. As John Dewey wrote, “When the personal is taken into account it will revolutionize philosophy.”
Before them both Jane Addams took her ideas to the people with Hull House. Her vision was to provide art and music to the poor immigrant communities using the universality of how we feel as shown in art to connect people beneath the surface differences. Though she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her anti-war efforts later, Hull House also hosted political debate and she was instrumental in advocating laws to protect children from industry’s exploitation. Her work anticipated today’s community arts movement and the focus on positive action rather than punitive codes.
Today pre-twenty-first century attitudes still exist that take it upon themselves to correct others’ behavior while missing vast reservoirs of misbehavior in themselves. No matter what parents try to correct in their children they can’t make a dent in the powerful day-to-day example being set by how they themselves behave. Pushing other people around just causes resentment particularly when there are glaring inconsistencies in the behavior of whoever is in control. When the police officers in Baltimore get a maximum of $350,000 bail for killing someone they shouldn’t have been arresting in the first place and a teenager that broke a police car window got $500,000 bail, there’s an obvious imbalance.
This example shows the serious crisis of proportions in the underlying problem. Jane Addams called it the “unpardonable sin” to value an inanimate object/symbol or idea/law over the individual human being in a particular context. Justice is about balance, the blindfolded woman holding the scales. It is when facts aren’t seen together as a picture that the disproportions go unnoticed.
Art educates proportions and the young artists of today are connected to the world in unique ways in tune with changing modern circumstances. This year’s graduating class is sending many fine examples of dedication to what can be offered through who they are into a world that needs what they can show it, who understand that the more you give to whatever you do, the happier you are. Many participated in the protests and the cleanup and helped shine light on the unnoticed parts of the picture. And in their work they reach into the heart, cutting through the mind-numbing repetitions of popular culture to offer deeper recognition of what it’s like to be alive now.