By Shiv Subramaniam
As a member of Navatman for the past two years, I’ve had a chance to observe first-hand the idea of art that seems to underlie the Navatman community’s diverse activities. To put it simply, people at Navatman don’t see performance as the end-all and be-all of art. While the concert hall is certainly important, art’s power to touch and transform us is felt as much in the act of performing as in the process of teaching and learning, as much on stage as in the company of one’s friends or the privacy of one’s home. At Navatman, the word “artist” would apply just as well to a four-year-old starting dance lessons as to a music teacher who has been training for several years. Now, recent events have pressed many of us to ask ourselves what it is we do in life and why we do it. I wanted to address these questions to my fellow artists, understood in the more inclusive sense that Navatman gives this word: as teachers, learners, and performers of art, what do we do, and what does art do for us?
For those of us who can afford to indulge in it, art can offer much consolation when life is unsettling. For an entire week after the election, a friend of mine and an aunt drowned themselves in music. While music affirmed my friend’s sense of kinship with others, it helped my aunt confront thoughts for which she felt language did not have the strength. As for me, I turned to the poetry of Whitman, which I hoped would assure me that democracy is still possible. But apart from consolation, what else does art give? What concrete solutions can it offer to the problems of the times? For is it not precisely at moments like this, when the stakes are so high, that art begins to seem superfluous, an elite preoccupation which insulates us from the issues rather than calling our attention to them?
Art once again finds itself in the position of having to defend itself, and once again the task of defending it falls to reason. We trust reason to decide what is or is not worth pursuing. For example, I have reasonably proposed that art can offer us solace. Others like to emphasize other uses of art, for example, its capacity to refine our emotions, enhance our creativity, or train our sympathetic impulse. Art may well do all of these things. Still, we may wonder why it is that we should trust reason to judge the value of art. Where does reason derive its authority to judge one way or another? Why do we measure art by the standards of reason, and not rather look at reason, as Nietzsche once proposed, “through the prism of art?”
The news seems no less tolerable today than it did before the election. In place of a series of reports on the most recent scandal or outrageous remark, we now hear the latest of a hundred well-reasoned analyses of “what went wrong.” Such explanations no doubt have their place in deciding where to go from here. But when a flood of them overwhelms us, it can become easy for us to start tuning out the noise. It’s always astonishing when something that moved us just weeks ago can be met with increasing indifference, so that no matter how hard we think about a goal, we cannot seem to recover the sense of urgency that first inspired in us the motivation to pursue it.
In thinking about these important relations between reason and art, art and decision-making, breathing offers an important lesson. Inhale and exhale have the rhythm of an ebb and flow: in each pair, one marks the other’s limit. The sea’s releasing clasp upon the shore is none other than the earth’s respiration. However much land the sea has covered, it can go no farther without returning to itself for a moment. That moment is when the water takes in a breath, literally inspires, gathering the strength to wash the earth anew. However deep is our analysis, however, powerful our explanation, all of it expires without a corresponding inspiration. Art might be none other than this: a returning to ourselves, a reminder of what and where we are, a gathering of strength before folding back upon the world with a surer and vaster embrace. Not at all an escape, then, but a thing most needful in uncertain times.