Anna Deavere Smith Works is the Aspen Institute's newest policy program and is dedicated to convening and supporting artists whose work addresses the world's most pressing challenges. Ms. Smith wrote the following essay for Aspen Ideas Festival 2013, currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado.
Many of the artists I admire manage to get out in front of politics, even to get out in front of social activism and pave the way for positive change. The "Artist As Seer" track suggests that sometimes-courageous artists are the ones who take the first steps in social progress.
Artists in some societies are given a "grace note" -- a kind of compass -- that inspires them to suggest, imagine and suppose. The successful ones conjure up a desired or fictional reality before that reality exists. People like to believe in possibility. That must be one of our primal drives. If the artist's narrative is intoxicating enough, it will cause audiences to engage in actions that change the world.
Metaphor, the artist's fundamental tool, is forgiving and generous. It is not held captive by fact or tribe or convention or politics. It suggests what might be possible and says, "You! in the audience, you can do this. You can look at things differently and do things differently. Blue can be orange!"
Our world is changing at a breath-halting pace. In the old days, "disruption" suggested a bad thing Now, disruption is considered to be a crucial part of success. But how do we make sense of a world that changes with such speed?
The news media seeks to be on top of what just happened with lightening speed. Punditry attempts to analyze what happened just as quickly. We let the pundits figure it out before our eyes. Punditry can make us passive. Wouldn't we feel more of our own authority and therefore our own motivation if we could actively make sense of changes ourselves?
Some artists ask us to question reality. In so doing, they engage us as active seekers of meaning. Sometimes, when artistic seeking meets an audience, those who witness it change the way they live their lives -- for the long haul, not just for an aha moment.
Churches used to be the place where people looked for that deep meaning. But in modern times, churches are problematic for some and seem irrelevant. For one thing, eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, as President Obama noted while he was still a candidate for president in 2008, is the most segregated hour in American life. We see religious difference as a seed of some of the world's worst problems.
In a secular world, religion's reach becomes limited. Reverend James Cone, a scholar at Union Theological Seminary, told me: "Religion does not speak primarily to people who are self-sufficient; it speaks to the people who know they are not who they are supposed to be. They are still searching for that meaning."
Art manages to speak to those who are searching, and it sometimes turns our hearts and minds when we are not looking. It might capture us in a bar, on a dance floor, while leafing through a magazine or in the midst of a raucous television sitcom.
I recently thought about Aretha Franklin's songs "Respect" and "Think" and when they hit the scene. Those songs, like the blues that came before them, addressed not only a less-than-faithful lover. They also addressed the power structure of the time:
You better think (think) think about what you're trying to do to me
Yeah, think (think, think), let your mind go, let yourself be free
You need me (need me) and I need you (don't you know)
Without each other there ain't nothing people can do
In 1968, the lyrics gave voice to what we all realized. Previously respected institutions were missing a basic fact of an interdependent society: You need me and I need you. Inside a popular love song, there might be a humanitarian message waiting to be embraced.
Artists may look at the past and may respond to the present, but often something in their vision evokes the future. That's why we honor artists from centuries ago. They saw something bigger than the moment and were able to communicate it through skill and imagination.
Some say artists put a mirror up to society. Some say artists speak truth to power. Some artists go over the line of acceptability and are transgressive. I am reminded of one of Rufino Tamayo's paintings -- two boys with bloodied killed chickens in their hands -- entitled The Comedians. Our beloved comedians are often shocking, inappropriate, even brutal.
On the other hand, like the humanitarian revolutionaries who changed society for the better and brought dignity and possibility to otherwise truncated lives, some artists have the courage to shower the world with love. The best ones do that when love appears to be on vacation, choosing hope and promise over Armageddon. In our current cosmopolitan, materialistic, evidence-based world where many of us are suspicious of -- or even disdainful of -- religion, art might be an ecumenical, secular religion.