On September 11, 2001—just hours after the attacks on Washington and New York—150 members of Congress gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol. Representatives from both parties stood side by side and began to sing. Their impromptu rendition of “God Bless America” rang out across the steps of Capitol Hill and made its way into living rooms across the nation.
“They could have done anything, but that was the way they came together,” remembers Dave Lawrence, president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis. By responding to tragedy with song, Congress members created a powerful example of art’s ability to heal. “People can communicate without communicating or find shared experiences through the arts,” Dave explains. “Through that experience comes understanding.”
Finding common ground seems especially important—and especially problematic—in 2016. There’s been a spike in gun violence nationwide and bombings abroad, and a simple scroll through Facebook reveals a deeply polarized political scene. “What’s going on in our country right now, it just makes it clearer that the arts are needed more than ever,” Dave says.
When addressing controversial issues seems impossible, art offers a way to start the conversation. “We provide a different lens,” explains Jerry Wise, CFO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “There’s a lot that cultural institutions do that impacts and guides public discourse around a lot of issues.”
The IMA does just that, hosting programs and exhibits that encourage dialogue. Last month, in the wake of several high-profile shootings, the museum screened Straight Outta Compton and hosted a discussion on free speech, policing, and racial justice. Its panel included speakers with diverse perspectives: a former LAPD officer, a Black Lives Matter activist, and ACLU of Indiana’s executive director, among others.
The event sold out, and after the formal discussion ended, Jerry says a group of attendees got together to continue the conversation elsewhere. “That’s really what arts is about, expressing different kinds of opinions different ways,” Jerry adds. “We’re able to foster that on some of these issues where tensions run very high. … People start to think about the issue in slightly different ways, or greatly different ways for that matter.”
It can be easier to have dialogue about violence or any other controversial topic when the conversation is centered around art, rather than the topic itself. For example, 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville displayed Al Farrow’s “Wrath and Vengeance” this summer.
Farrow’s exhibit used deconstructed guns and bullets in ornate sculptures of religious structures—mosques, mausoleums, cathedrals, menorahs—to explore “the relationship between religion and war or religion and violence,” as Farrow put it. By setting the conversation about guns and violence in another context, he created a thought-provoking piece that was especially relevant given the NRA convention was in town.
“[Art] provides a safer space to think,” explains Jerry. “People can have a conversation which would typically be very emotional, very dramatic in really just a better way without a lot of that emotion overwhelming the conversation itself.”
Creative expression allows viewers and artists to explore ideas through a different lens. By tackling difficult topics in an open-ended format, art can invite people to see beyond their own perspective and engage with others who disagree. And in today’s environment, that kind of communication and openness is something we all need.