In a world plagued with economic, social, and political turmoil, it sometimes seems to be a hopeless situation. Atrocities such as the Paris attacks, Beirut, the Russian Metrojet over Egypt, and the recent San Bernardino, California shooting, are occurring daily in many parts of the globe, and it is important to ask the difficult questions that lead to answering why. Not only why it happened, but why similar atrocities continue to happen around the world and what can be done to prevent future tragedies? It would be naive and shortsighted to suggest that the arts alone can solve these complex problems; however, arts and culture can play a significant role in cultivating empathy, awareness, and critical thinking, which are compulsory to effectively understanding and solving any problem.
Of the organizations around the world addressing these questions is Germany’s Stiftung Genshagen Foundation. Since 2005, the foundation has created constructive dialogue between the countries of the European Union, chiefly the nations of the Weimar Triangle: Poland, Germany, and France. By creating a bridge between art and culture, politics, economics, science, and media, Stiftung Genshagen enhances the cultural diversity of Europe and its capacity for peace and cooperation. On November 9th, 2015, I visited the foundation’s castle headquarters in Brandenburg, Germany to interview Executive Director of The Artistic and Cultural Dialogue in Europe, Crystal Hartmann-Fritsch.
Our interview was held four days before the Paris attack, and in a recent email, I learned that Crystal was at The Stade de France with a group of children when it all happened. In the message, she wrote that our interview would have been very different if it had been done after the attacks,
The consciousness is different now; we will have even more responsibility
The “me” references, not only artists, organizations, and others who are actively working to create peace, but everyone who wants to live in a safer world. Though Crystal did not predict the attack, in our interview, she did address reoccurring issues at the core of violence and hate that can be resolved by cultivating empathy and other virtues through the arts.
Crystal explained that her work requires the ability to look beyond borders and liberate one’s self from the fear of diverse views and expressions. This requires listening, a skill that sadly, many in the political arena lack. Crystal pointed to her own shortcomings in this arena,
This is what I have to learn still. I’m unable to listen sometimes, because I’m so convinced that I know.
According to Studio Thinking 2, The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, Second Edition, there are eight principle habits of mind or dispositions that the arts develop. Observation, understanding of one’s community, the ability to stretch and explore, and reflection are a few. This is also true of music, dance, theater, and many other art forms. As Crystal pointed out, when we seek to understand the perspectives of others, trust is built, and only then is collaboration possible.
Crystal explained how easily it is to adopt the opinion that when things get tough, resources should be spent on “solving the pressing problems” before embracing luxuries such as the arts. This perspective sidesteps the root of the problem to address only the symptoms. According to Crystal,
It’s our personal development. If we can do this step via the arts we will be able to have empathy. We will be much more able to see what surrounds us
Understanding our world and perceiving the whole picture is the only way to make lasting positive change, and the arts can cultivate this outlook. Focusing only on eradicating the problems that we face instead of truly understanding what causes them in the first place leads only to more problems. One cannot fix a problem unless it is thoroughly understood.
I hope Crystal is right, that the consciousness has changed and that people are beginning to see the parallels between all forms of violence. A critical and empathetic understanding of the root causes of violence is the only way to create any solutions for the problems that plague humanity. As she so simply stated, “we have more of a responsibility now.” If arts and culture aren’t the tool for cultivating these dispositions, I hope we can find something as powerful.