The Art of Transformation

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A month or two ago, I was at a meeting with a group of about fifteen really smart, talented artists when one member of the assembly – ironically, one who considered himself an observer rather than part of the group – passionately asserted that the community-based work we were discussing was “transformational,” and he couldn’t for the life of him understand why we were so reluctant to promote that fact. In response, one after another, artists who had moments ago been telling stories about the powerful effects of various projects on individuals and communities refused to embrace that word, until one finally cried out, “We can’t prove it.”

Inwardly, I shuddered. As a college professor, I recognized the roots of this impasse: assessment. “Assessment” is the name given to a push in education for teachers to provide concrete evidence that the students who took the class have “learned” something. Syllabi on campuses across the country contain “Goals and Objectives” that start out “As a result of taking this class, students will be able to…” Able to what? Able to understand the world more fully? Able to think more deeply? Able to understand their own souls more thoroughly? And assessment officers shout, “PROVE IT!”

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Zan Zig magician poster 1899Prove it indeed.

And now artists, responding to skeptical funders who demand that there be a concrete return on investment for the money they provide, are afraid to make a bedrock claim of the true value of the arts — that they are “transformational.”

Perhaps part of the problem is how we define “transformational” in our minds. It appears as some sort of metaphysical “poof” that strikes like a thunderbolt sometime between when the spectator applauds during curtain call and when he exits the lobby; an epiphany of such dramatic proportions that the spectator’s family and co-workers no longer recognize him, like the last scene of A Christmas Carol.

But of course, that’s not how it works, ever, and we all know it. There are very few times when such events happen in the life of a person or a group of people who make up a community, and the likelihood that it will happen to anyone at a single performance of a play, much less every play that is offered over the course of a season, is scant. Transformation just doesn’t happen all at once, and its cause is rarely a single event. Rather, it is an additive process, tiny clicks of a spiritual flywheel that build until the energy is suddenly released in a whoosh of change. Is it just the last click that is important?

I can’t “prove” that anybody is changed in any way as a result of taking one of my classes, and most of the students, if asked at the time, wouldn’t recognize that a change has occurred either. And yet, every once in a while a student will return years after the class is over and tell me how important a class was to who they have become. James Joyce focused his short stories on moments of epiphany because such moments in life are rare.

So how can we claim our art is transformational without being able to tally up the “poofs?”

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There is another definition of “transformation,” one that comes out of linguistics, that I think is relevant to this discussion. More importantly for funders, legislators and other doubters of the power of the arts, this transformation can be proven because it exists not only in the soul of the spectator but also in the work of art itself. Noam Chomsky, in his groundbreaking work Syntactic Structures, described what he called the “transformational rule,” a rule that “converts deep structures to surface structures.”

Ultimately, isn’t that what artists do? They bring deep structures to the surface so they can be experienced more powerfully and directly. Through the selection and ordering of events, of words, of music, of movement, of pattern we get a glimpse of the underlying meaning and significance of our lives, of our communities, of our societies. The chaotic randomness of everyday life is stripped away, and in its place we encounter the truths upon which our lives are built. Perhaps when Russian Formalist Viktor Schlovsky wrote that “art exists to recover the sense of life, in order to feel objects, to make the stone stony,” this is part of what he meant.

When Van Gogh painted a picture of his boots, the spectator saw more than simply their surface characteristics, he also saw the underlying structure of a life that would weather those boots in just that way. When Bertolt Brecht wrote a scene in Galileo in which the Pope is being dressed, and he portrayed him becoming increasingly rigid regarding Galileo’s “heresy” the more papal robes were added, Brecht was using his art “transformationally” by bringing to the surface a deep structure, i.e., by showing how the trappings of power influence or even determine the beliefs and actions of those who wield it.

The attentive spectator, noticing consciously or unconsciously this newly revealed deep structure, is capable of transferring this revelation to his or her own life. Because the art is “transformational,” the spectator is transformed – is more capable of seeing the deep structure beneath the everyday.

Ultimately, that’s what education does, and what art does, and even though the process is subtle and incremental, to not celebrate it simply because it lacks suddenness, because it cannot be “proven” on a causal basis, ultimately denies what is most powerful and valuable about what we do.

President Obama’s recent comments on education, I am sorry to say, reflect almost a complete lack of understanding of this transformative aspect of education. He, like Bill Gates and just about every conservative politician, believes education is about job skills; he, like Bill Gates and just about every conservative politician, fails to recognize the difference between education and training, between knowledge and job skill; the difference between the creation of an individual citizen and an employee.

The fact is that politicians and businessmen are extremely uncomfortable with the idea transformational aspect of both education and the arts. They are suspicious of critical thinking, of being able to see the underlying power structure at work beneath the superficial slogans they coin to deceive us. To question the status quo may be the basis for the disruptive innovation that gives birth to new inventions and businesses, but as a general rule the powers-that-be don’t want the rest of us to question or even recognize the way the deck is stacked to benefit a chosen few.

This is why arts funding has always been so scant in our country. It isn’t because of outrage over issues of morality or objections to government funding for something as “trivial” or “elite” as the arts, it’s because the arts are capable of revealing the deep lies upon which our so-called democratic meritocracy is based.

As artists, we deny this power at our own peril, and the peril of our society. If we define ourselves solely as entertainers and provide works of art that stay resolutely on the surface of life, if we superficially toy with the baubles of contemporary culture while relying on a superior smirk and a cynical shrug, we are contributing to our own demise. If artists are to perform their true role in society, they must be powerfully educated in order to have the knowledge and critical thinking skills to see beneath the surface to the rotten (or beautiful) deeper truth, and they must have the commitment to using that power to make our society a better place.

We are an art of transformation which is built on a transformational education. We must not only embrace that concept, we must fight for it in the face of a culture that seeks to trivialize both. And when we are asked to “prove it,” all we need do it point at the politicians and business men whose opposition is a clear proof of their fear.

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Scott Walters is a Professor of Drama at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, as well as the founder of the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE). He is the long-time author of several blogs including Theatre Ideas and Creative Insubordination. He also writes for The Huffington Post, American Theatre magazine, and is the co-author of Introduction to Play Analysis. He lives in Bakersville, NC.

  • Jon Yuhas

    A good piece of work sir, but I would note that life is transformational, in fact one can substitute the word life for the words art and education in your essay and it still makes perfect sense. Art, real art, persists in spite of the paucity of funding and not all “businessmen” are uncomfortable or suspicious. In fact many value critical thinking and imagination more than you might suppose.

  • Scott Walters
  • I applaud your critique of our outcomes-obsessed academic culture, and the way it marginalizes the ineffable, yet transformational potential of classes, and experiences, in creative process. My own notion about this tendency is a bit more economic than yours. I see it as another result of the commercialization of our culture: the tendency to turn everything (and everyone) into an object to bought and sold. It is capitalism which is the driver in our outcomes-obsessed schools. We no longer talk about “supporting”. We talk about “investing”. And an investor wants to know what the return on his investment will be, using metrics the investor approves of, metrics which cannot measure human transformation.

  • Jon — Life is (or can be) transformational in the first definition of the term, it seems to me — i.e., we change as we experience life. But the second definition, to my mind, is more important: bringing the deep structure to the surface, so it can be observed. This is subversive, because the power structure relies on keeping the underlying structures covered up. As far as businessmen, I have written elsewhere that business is far more committed to innovation than just about any other group in the world, and that requires that they cultivate critical thinking and imaginative freedom. Not so education, unfortunately, which is now focused almost exclusively on compliance. And not so arts, which are now focused almost exclusively on survival. Both have become handmaidens for “job skills,” which represents one of the biggest disconnects in our culture.

  • Laura Walters

    I was just listening to a podcast for spinners that noted that Howard Gardner of multiple intelligences fame was particularly interested in arts education. Why? Because of the 9 styles of intelligence that he had identified, arts education addressed and stimulated and taught through SEVEN of them. It is the most holistic form of education there is.