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In the Face of Tragedy
Do the Arts Matter?
by Cary Boyce

Recently, I sang in an ad hoc ensemble for a service at the Indiana University Auditorium memorializing the tragic events in New York and Washington. The service was interspersed with music and spoken words. I am privileged to be a musician, working in disciplines that speak to the human spirit in times like this, for ultimately, that is probably the artsí most important function.

It may seem like sacrilege to say it, but the arts can be self-indulgent, useless, meaningless, or unilateral. Occasionally, Iím amused by the vitriol that comes from various factions over a particular work or style, itís lack of substance or itís lack of connection to the current trend. Artists often worry about their own contributions or their participation in the dialog concerning them.

And then this assault on human dignity and innocence exposes the frayed edges of the human condition, both its fragility and its strength. People turn to each other and to the arts for comfort, healing, emotional expression, and unity.

This is not to say that composers will no longer be selfish or self-indulgent, that painters will no longer criticize each others work in anything but the kindest terms, or filmmakers will only make films with meaning and relevance. Somewhere, screenwriters are no doubt cobbling WTC scripts with dollar signs in their eyes. The arts by their nature are an extension and expression of the human spirit, even the negative aspects. So it is only natural that when emotions and the human condition have been laid bare, that we should look to the arts to help portray the best that humanity can offer: heroism, community, and caring--artistic expression to give voice to our anger, our grief, our understanding, and our will to build for the future. We look for the beauty inside of the tragedy.

WFIUís usual programming schedule was suspended, not only to provide more news coverage, but also to offer more music of the human voice and some of the best expressions of sorrow and consolation that musicians have provided through the centuries. Ensembles from choirs and orchestras to barbershop quartets and rock bands met around the country to sound support and prayers for those who face todayís struggles most directly. Spontaneous paintings and works of art and poetry have hit the net, distributed for no better reason than to give a momentís comfort or a different perspective. 

In an excellent essay by actor Peter Coyote, he advocates support of artists in our community not to build an audience for some idealistic artistic community, but to access the perspectives and resources of the people most in touch with the creative imagination in order to address the practical and seemingly intractable problems that face our society. 

The arts can express our politics, our views, the shape and direction our nation and our world will take. Therefore, more and more organizations are looking for ways in which to connect the arts more closely with our communities, to make the arts a part of our daily lives. But the arts are a part of our daily lives whether we intend it or not. The question becomes one of how and at what levels they are integrated. My own view is that artists take steps to become more involved in the day-to-day events, education or our youth, and the decision-making processes that guide our nation and our communities. The arts can provide a vision of the future.

By educating our children in the arts, we give them training in how to look deeply into subjects and issues from different sides and perspectives and find solutions. The arts teach skills such as setting and achieving goals, attention to detail, cooperation, examination and study, discipline, and a host of other qualities that can help us look for creative solutions to difficult problems that face our society. The arts help develop a vision of what can be rather than what is. By embracing the arts, we develop a more informed citizenship, a more tolerant nation, and a deeper understanding of how events might or should (or should not) unfold. 

Today the arts give voice to the grief of a nation. Tomorrow, they can help us understand each other and the events that shape our lives. Like sciences, religion, and philosophy, the arts help us to understand who we are. More to the point, the arts help give us a vision of who we might be.

[Cary Boyce is a musician and composer, a general partner in the production company Aguavá New Music.]