When times seem unsettled, knowing the story of history and of art can bring comfort.
I was reading an article in the paper the other day and came across this passage: “We’re living through a discontinuity…a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work.” The piece quoted someone as saying “It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding that the world as we thought it was, is no longer there.” It struck me as sharply applicable to the times we’re living in.
I think I may use it at the start of my classes this semester, particularly with my freshman classes. By the time my students get through high school, most of them have developed a storyboard of American history that they perceive as settled, but then when they start to gain a more complete story with a broader perspective and more complexity, it can be a little, well, unsettling. What many people call
indoctrination, or “tearing down cherished beliefs” is really an invitation to understand a broader and more complete story. We could talk about this a lot; I see it every semester. Students tell me plainly that they never saw history from the perspective they’re now starting to explore. Well, some of them tell me that.
Despite the unsettling nature, when one simple story is supplanted, it helps a lot when those preconceived notions and atomistic facts are replaced by a more fully developed and really more coherent story that doesn’t shy away from the complexities inherent in it. That’s what learning to know history—and more, to think historically—is all about.
You’re probably thinking: What does this have to do with art? Well, knowing art can give us a similar kind of comfort in the place of perceived dislocations and gaping chasms that seem to sometimes open up in our lives. It doesn’t make us completely comfortable, but it can put an arm around us.
Art isn’t really going to fix any of our problems. But it can remind us of a continuity that we often fear has been demolished. It can remind us that human beings like ourselves have been looking at the world and interpreting its changes for a long time. Artists have left us a vivid record of what a changing world feels like. What anxiety feels like. What isolation in a crowd feels like.
A dancer in Swan Lake, or Rembrandt painting, or a Satie piano piece will say more to you than will all the online echo chambers now clambering for our attention put together.
Even if it’s unfamiliar, like entertaining the complexities of an opposing story, art can enrich your understanding of the world. And with that will come, if not comfort, at least an appreciation that you’re not going through all this alone.