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Disrupt Thyself

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"The emotions -- love, mirth, the heroic, wonder, tranquility, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust -- are in the audience." - John Cage -- composer, music theorist, artist, writer, disruptor

It took John Cage's 4'33" of non-action at the piano to illustrate that silence isn't what we thought, nor is music. His gift was the experience of listening to the sounds of our own heartbeats and confusion. Robert Rauschenberg's seemingly empty "White Painting" panels make us question the border between creativity and reality, the intentional and the actual, perception and authorship, outrage and insight. And then there is verse. Great poems pry us open in the most subtle, delicious, disarming and discerning ways. Beyond digital revolutions and innovation economics; art can be a most effective agent of disruption.

The theme of this week's Aspen Institute Action Forum is disruptive leadership. The Institute itself is a hotbed of disruption, and it's to their lasting credit that they will not only focus this gathering of global leaders on actual outcomes, but that they place the role of art squarely on the action agenda.

The surest way to move from ideas into action is to light a fire -- in the belly, in the spirit, in the marrow. Rational discussion, statistical analysis and historical patterns can't tell a person when the time has come to step forth and fulfill his or her highest purpose. The decision to fight evil or risk failure comes with assistance from the other side of the brain, the emotive, intuitive, chaotic realm. Art stirs that pot. It gives wing to desires that logic and self-discipline would keep at abeyance.

It's true that disruptions like war and economic collapse or extreme inhumanity can be the final jolt to action, but, on an individual level, a poem like Invictus can be as riveting a personal anthem to you and to me as it was to the great Nelson Mandela -- if we let it. I would argue that we must let it to be fully alive.

Art has a way of sneaking up on us, getting under the skin and stripping off the confusion, cowardice and fear that holds us back from our most authentic actions. The artist's approach takes many forms from stealthy to direct. Ernest Stadler's poem "The Saying" builds from a list of fake ways of being -- "when I betray myself with/an easy explanation" or "put my hands around things/that don't excite me" -- to crescendo with an emphatic admonition to "Stop being a ghost." For me, it is impossible not to hear that saying echo from all borders of myself.

In the presence of a work of art, we are always the ultimate subject. The emotions do, in fact, live in the audiences. As audience to their creations, we are the ones who must bring to life whatever existential quandaries the artist is grappling with or indicating. Our senses, our sensations are what give shape, habitation and flight to these universal human prompts.

This mortal coil we know as life is a thing of unimaginable beauty. It is a font of purest joy and abiding sadness, often all at once. The struggle to sort, to order and to act, may begin with the artist, but must resolve with us. Surely some revelation is at hand. Favor art in your quiver.

"We rake the cinders with music."
From Michael Donaghy's "Erratum."