Humanist Faith in the Redemptive Power of Art


Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made.
That is not the sort of belief that indicates real faith.
Franz Kafka

Some days I find it very hard to believe that art can save the world. I look at other people, I look at myself, and I see these self-contained, sealed off bubbles of anxiety and self-interest just bouncing off each other. I look at the larger society and I see an intentionally stoked melee of fear and mindless acquisition, everyone just grabbing what they can and hoarding it away. I look at the whole world, the planet itself, and I see warlords and starving children waiting for the drought or tsunami that will end their brutal lives.

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Bosch Garden
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earhtly Delights, c. 1500
(Click to enlarge.)

And then I look at this fragile, ephemeral thing. Art. This thing made of imagination, this thing that isn’t meant to practically do anything. How can a pure creative act, an instinctive expression, something by its nature impractical and non-utilitarian, positively effect the enormous, complicated mess that is our world?

How does a painting or a poem or a performance combat systemic injustice or institutional paranoia?  What kind of weapon is a song?

And then, usually after I’ve had my coffee, I realize again that art; beauty and harmony, humor, a shared vision, a re-imagining of what is automatically considered possible, all these things that art is and allows,  these are the only things that can possibly save the world. These tiny acts and impermanent actions, these precious moments of connection, these are the only things I know that lift me above my self-interest and give me hope for a better future.

Faith is not only believing completely in what cannot be proven, sometimes it’s believing completely in what hasn’t happened yet. And some days that’s the kind of faith that’s required to believe in building an arts-centric city and living in a world where the act of creativity is valued over the fact of acquisition.