The arts in turbulent times


D Paul Schafer

By D.Paul Schafer

Like people everywhere in the world, artists and arts organizations were shocked and saddened by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The profuse outpouring of grief and anguish that came from actors, actresses, musicians, singers, dancers, painters, and playwrights following these tragic and despicable events stands as vivid testimony to this.

As time passed, it became clear that these were not isolated events, but rather manifestations of something much more serious, sinister, and disturbing in the world. There was a great deal of anger, hostility, and resentment in many parts of the world. This was confirmed not only by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but also by violent reactions to globalization, capitalism, huge disparities in income and wealth, famine, poverty, starvation, and deep divisions between different races, religions, cultures, and civilizations.

This is occurring once again in 2019 and 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic that has already claimed countless more lives but in a very different way. Not only have all countries, people, and the world as a whole been affected by the coronavirus in one form or another, but once more there is a profuse outpouring of grief, anguish, and emotions by artists and arts organizations. Many have lost their jobs or had their exhibitions and performances cancelled due to severe but necessary restrictions by governments on physical contact in large and small crowds as well as at major gatherings and public and private events.

Undeterred by the intensity and gravity of this situation, legions of artists and arts organizations around the world are turning to contemporary developments and devices in the social media and communications to find new ways to perform or exhibit in groups through virtual reality or other means while being trapped and isolated in their own homes. They have risen to the occasion once again because they want to help millions of people cope with this dreadful disease and find the courage, persistence, and endurance to prevail despite the extent and severity of this world-wide crisis.

Obviously some fundamental changes are required in the world to set this situation right, as well as to deal with all the other debilitating and dangerous problems that have arisen around the world in recent years, such as climate change, global warming, and the environmental crisis, vast inequalities in incomes and wealth, the intermingling of millions of people and populations with different worldviews, values, customs, traditions, and way of life, and the perpetual threat of nuclear, chemical, or biological warfare. Indeed, it would not be far off the mark to say that a new world system is needed to deal with problems as difficult and life-threatening as this. It is against this backdrop that the arts community must frame and fashion its short- and long-term responses to tragic events like these, and others that have loomed up in the world in recent years.

The most pressing need of all is to provide people with peaceful and cooperative – rather than violent and confrontational – ways to express their pent-up feelings, emotions, and frustrations. Fortunately, the arts do this largely in soothing rather than unsettling ways, although there are times when the arts and artists must be provocative in order to confront existing ways of doing things, challenge the status quo, and act as mirrors to societies, countries, and people. Without this, it is not possible to create different ways of doing things and altered circumstances, especially during these turbulent times when it
is so necessary to create constructive rather than destructive forms of behaviour and more sustainable directions for the future. Great Britain realized the importance of this during the Second World War when it created the Arts Council of Great Britain, now Arts Council England. Numerous developments and initiatives like this are needed everywhere in the world today. It is a time to refresh our connection and renew our acquaintance with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, Picasso’s Guernica, Rodger and Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone, Lennon’s Imagine, and Mendelssohn’s Grant Us Peace.

We need a massive build-up of the arts in countries and communities all over the world. Political, corporate, and educational leaders must be convinced that the arts have a central rather than marginal role to play in the development of societies, countries, and international relations at this time, as well as at all times and in all places. While military leaders are vying for more money to spend on military weapons and the instruments of war, artistic leaders must be vying for more money to spend on the arts as vehicles of peace, tolerance, and cooperation, much as Federico Mayor did years ago when he created the Foundation for Peace in Spain.

Expanding the arts in this way would go a long way towards cooling off the world rather than heating it up. It would also go a long way towards building strong foundations and friendly relations between all the diverse peoples, religions, races, countries, and cultures of the world. The distinguished authority on international relations, Paul Braisted, recognized the importance of this when he said:

“Anyone who discards the possibility of developing more friendly
relations among people should ponder the alternative long and well.
The only alternative is continuing and deepening conflict, with its
dangers of increasing reliance upon violence, and the corrosive
effects upon human life of distrust and fear” (1)

It will not be possible to prevent this and build strong and friendly relations between people and countries – all people and all countries and not just some people and some countries – without a quantum leap in international relations in general and international artistic relations in particular. This is yet another area where the arts have a crucial role to play, even if it is a longer and more slowly evolving role.

As the purveyors of some of humanity’s most human and humane expressions, music, dance, drama, literature, and painting expose the real hearts and souls of people and nations. These activities communicate effectively across racial, ethnic, and linguistic divides, geographical boundaries, and political interests in profound, cooperative, and compelling ways. This reveals most clearly what people and countries are all about, how they have evolved over time, and what they hold most precious to themselves.

This is not the only reason for advocating a massive build-up in international artistic relations. When economic, commercial, and military relations are in flux – much as they are today in many parts of the world – international artistic relations provide a strong stabilizing force and calming influence. They cushion the shocks that can easily result from erratic swings in the pendulums of economic, political, commercial, financial, and military power. Thus, a comprehensive program of international artistic relations involving singers, dancers, actors, actresses, composers, painters, playwrights, theatre and dance companies, symphony orchestras, choirs, and so forth can provide the glue that is needed to keep people, races, ethnic groups, countries, and continents together when other forces are operating to split them apart. In this way, peace, harmony, happiness, civility, and security – yes security – are more readily achieved and maintained in the world.

Equally important is the fact that international artistic relations do more than anything else to eradicate fear and suspicion – the kind of fear and suspicion that results from the inability to understand the signs, symbols, customs, traditions, and beliefs of other people and other cultures. Through a dramatic expansion in international relations in this area – relations based on in-depth encounters with the artistic achievements of all people and all countries – there is an opportunity to bring the whole world and all people and countries in the world into intimate contact. It is an opportunity that is far too important to the future of the world to pass up. This is yet another area where the arts community has a valuable role to play, not only in turbulent times but in all times.

While political and corporate leaders tend to resist or downplay the importance of the arts and international artistic relations, they are of utmost importance to the world of the future. As developments in the past have repeatedly demonstrated – and demonstrated convincingly – there is an appalling lack of understanding of the different countries, cultures, and civilizations of the world. Without a great deal more emphasis on the arts and international artistic relations, “the clash of cultures and civilizations” is inevitable and could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The world of the future will obviously be characterized by a great deal more intercultural mixing, interaction, and borrowing than there is today. Demographic, social, economic, technological, and communications’ changes will see to this, as will globalization, computerization, and digitalization. People everywhere will have to learn much more about cultures other than their own if they want to function effectively in the world and live and creative, constructive, safe, and secure lives.

As the gateway to cultures and civilizations, the arts have an indispensable role to play in this area as well. While it is essential to train young people and future generations for careers in the arts and educate people to participate actively in the arts, what is equally essential is to broaden and deepen people’s knowledge and understanding of their own culture and the cultures of others. The arts do this by exposing people to artistic works, signs, symbols, values, and ideals that are different from their own, as well as by acquainting them with all the diverse cultures and civilizations that exist throughout the world.

At a time when people from all walks of life and all occupations and professions are staking claims to the type of world system that is most needed in the future, the arts community must make a strong case for a world system based on the arts’ and culture’s highest, wisest, and most enduring values and ideals. Included among these values and ideals are: the quest for equality, justice, freedom, and truth; the love of beauty, knowledge, and wisdom; the necessity of stability, security, diversity, and cooperation; the importance of caring, sharing, and compassion, recognition of the needs and rights of others; and the quest for the sublime. Let’s not fall into the trap identified by Oscar Wilde many years ago when he said, “it is possible to know the price of everything and value of nothing.”

If a world system based on the arts’ and culture’s highest, wisest, and most enduring values and ideals is to be realized, the arts community will have to play a forceful, proactive, and leadership role in all this. This was recognized by James Feibleman many years ago when he said:

“There is a sense in which the whole of human culture is a struggle towards the higher values. Can there be any greater human expression of culture than art? Art surely lifts us up, although it would not be likely to exist without us…We were meant to actualize the higher values, and incidental to this task is the privilege of enjoying them” (2)

A world system based on the arts’ and culture’s highest, wisest, and most enduring values and ideals would be an exciting system indeed. It would confirm the fact that the honest expression of feelings and emotions, artistic creation, scientific discovery, lifelong learning, spirituality, friendship, and human love are the most essential things in life – the things that are remembered and cherished long after everything else is forgotten. Not only do they bring real fulfillment and happiness in life, but also they promote peace and harmony rather than conflict and confrontation. Given the state of the world at present and prospects for the future, it is difficult to see how it will be possible for people and countries in all parts of the world to live in times as volatile and turbulent as these without this.

  1. Paul J. Braisted, Cultural Cooperation: Keynote of the Coming Age, The Hazen Pamphlets, Number 8 (New Haven: The Edward W. Hazen Foundation, 1945), pp. 5-6.
  2. James Feibleman, The Theory of Human Culture (New York: Humanities Press, 1968), pp. 326-327.

Click here to read all of Paul’s posts at, and here to read an excerpt from his latest book!

Also, be sure to check out the great video profile of Paul (below).   

Featured Image:
Beastly Sea (detail)
Painting by Dave Court
Based on a photograph by Che Chorley
Wall Mural in Glenelg, South Australia
Photo by Grant Hall

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