Arts & Culture Corner

Art as Resolution

I was once, in college, admonished by a peer for a touchy-feely New Year's resolution that I'd published to my blog. Although the full list included tangible experiences, such as travel to a new city and working out daily, the leader of the pack was much more nebulous: to be a little kinder.

Character-driven resolutions may be in style now, but they continue to pose a difficulty in measured impact. A list of "100 Things to Do Before I Die" provides the ease of tally—either you did it or you didn't—and earnings in character or wisdom are left for the ether, or at best between the lines of a travel journal. Asking for a kinder, more compassionate outlook may be too vague for real activity to take place.

That said, there's evidence that one timeless pursuit can promote intrinsic values. Participation in it increases the "capacity to trigger reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue, and foster new ideas and relationships," as written by Shelagh Wright in The Art of Life.

It's engagement in art and culture.

This thesis, posited by New Dream board member Tim Kasser and supported with evidence published recently in the New York Times, states that whether it be in practice or participation, art and culture supports the betterment of individual character and social values.

First, the development of freedom, creativity, and curiosity are strengthened through the arts—values known to increase overall life satisfaction. Second, flow-conducive activities as practiced in art suppress focus on extrinsic concerns like financial success, image, and popularity—values known to decrease overall satisfaction. Finally, deeply disruptive experiences, such as the profound consideration of one’s own mortality, reorient people toward intrinsic values. Art and culture have the potential to be this healthy disruptor, shaking up our world perception and encouraging inward reflection.

Self-reflection is key in a society prone to prescribing identity, rather than nurturing it. Much of the messaging we receive emphasizes money, image, and status, all external concerns. As Tom Crompton notes, the more than 3,000 advertisements that whiz by us each day "invite us to think of ourselves as consumers rather than as citizens."

Participation in art and culture offers relief. A study conducted at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas showed that students who visited the museum "demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions." This grounds what most devotees have long known: art and culture is key, at any age, to reconciling with the human condition.

It's unlikely that visiting a museum or listening to a symphony will allow one to achieve the full breadth of human kindness and compassion. Still, the historic words of John F. Kennedy, honoring Robert Frost, add retort to criticism: "When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."

In 2014, I have a new resolution. Listen to more bluegrass music, stop in when I notice a neighborhood reading, and be more fearless in my own creative contributions. Then, kindness will come.

Eleanor Cleverly is the Arts and Culture Fellow at the Center for a New American Dream.

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