Individualism and the Arts

By Bellah, Robert N.; Adams, Chris | The Christian Century, July 14, 1993 | Go to article overview

Individualism and the Arts


Bellah, Robert N., Adams, Chris, The Christian Century


THERE IS A recurring tendency in American culture to undervalue the arts -- to think of them as decorative, recreational or therapeutic. Rarely do we regard them as essential expressions of that which is most true about our lives.

Many other cultures have had a different understanding of the arts. In Greek the word musike, usually translated as "music," has a meaning closer to our term "the arts." It includes dance, poetry and drama. Plato saw musike and gymnastike, the culture of the body, as integrally related: they were, along with the cultivation of the intellect, essential components of a complete education. One could not be a whole person without facility in all three dimensions of life.

Modern American society has difficulty understanding the place of the arts. One reason for this stems from what we have come to call -- following Alexis de Tocqueville's use of the term in Democracy in America -- individualism. Whatever our cultural background, by the time we are adolescents we have imbibed a considerable amount of the culture of individualism, which emphasizes looking out for number one, satisfying ourselves without worrying too much about others, and letting our own ambitions, fears and desires determine how we act.

Individualism has a positive side, however. It emphasizes our responsibility to be true to ourselves, to find a way of life that is authentic and valuable. In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor suggests that we can use intuitions contained in this positive side of individualism to help people find a richer and more responsible form of life.

Here the arts can be of enormous help. For example, a person who wants to produce music, not just passively listen to it, has an opportunity to bring a coherence to his or her life that transcends the world of personal desires and fears. Despite our romantic notions of radical personal autonomy, we cannot just pick up an instrument and make whatever sounds we please. We must confront the instrument's objective possibilities, the fact that to make it do what we want it to do takes much time and skill. We are also reminded of our indebtedness to the past: even the most original music is a variation on traditions that must be learned before we can improvise. To do this does not crush our individuality; it gives expression to it.

When we learn to play an instrument we learn another terribly important lesson about the place of the individual: we learn that we can't do it all alone. At a minimum we need a teacher. A person will never learn to play the violin by reading a book about it. Much of what is transmitted between student and teacher can't even be verbalized. In a truly deep relationship, a student in a sense internalizes the teacher. Their dialogue continues long after the student has left the teacher or abandoned the teacher's ideas.

The interpersonal nature of all learning in the arts offers another way in which the negative possibilities of radical individualism can be moderated. We learn that we become our true selves not apart from others but in relation to them. The host of a chamber music program once commented on how the players looked at one another during the performance with an immediate understanding that is rare in our social interactions. …

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