People live by stories, George Gerbner, chair emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication, once said. If you can control people's stories, you don't need to control their armies or legislatures, because you already control their minds and hearts.
In households across the US, and increasingly in other nations, our stories are told by television and advertising. The values that are implicit in this corporate storytelling are substituting for those we once learned from our parents and grandparents. Our identities are tied to the logo on a t-shirt or sports shoe, not to our community or heritage, or our role as active participants in the creation of our future.
As the profit motive comes to dominate our storytelling, superficiality and mediocrity rule. We get the homogeneous, boring landscapes that are seen around almost every American city. The arts become fodder for advertising, leaving us hungry for real beauty and meaning.
Instead of further stimulating an addiction to consumer culture, how might the arts feed our souls? How might the arts help us reclaim our identities as individuals, cultures, and communities? How could the arts help us to build bridges between groups, heal past hurts, and connect more intimately with our natural environment?
This issue of YES! tells of people taking back their stories. One performer co-creates dance that reveals and begins healing the fault lines in a community (article by Burnham ). An artist paints a mural depicting the tragedy of young people locked in adult prisons (article by McConnell ). An architect, Samuel Mockbee—who appears on the cover of this issue—brings eclectic beauty to the design of housing for impoverished people in the South (article by Dean ).
In many traditional cultures, art is inseparable from life. Every item is worth making beautiful, whether it is a dish or a table. The canoes and paddles of the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, for example, are carved and painted in ways that tell their stories, and the process of carving is itself imbued with ceremony and story telling (article by Kim ).
These cultural expressions tell us where we came from and who we are. They pass along values, life skills, and sources of pride from generation to generation. But the arts do more than provide continuity with the past. At their best, they also open possibilities for the future. Artists, performers, writers, and dancers allow us to question the dominant mythology of our culture and consider ideas that otherwise might seem too radical. They provide the spaciousness that allows explorations of new ways of thinking and being.
As industrial, corporate-driven ways of life become increasingly unsustainable, people are looking for alternatives. They are creating other ways of life that are more sustainable for the Earth and their own well-being. These changes are not coming from a blueprint, but rather from explorations of mind, body, and heart. They don't come from a central source, but rather they bubble up from many communities. This process of change is an intuitive, interactive process, not one in which we can be passive consumers. It requires that we not only think rationally about how to create a more sustainable world, but that we dance, sing, and build it into being.
Our community gatherings, dances, film festivals, and music performances, then, can be revolutionary acts. They help us discover and manifest our own dreams for the future and allow us to take the first steps toward making those dreams a reality.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder
P.S. While we were working on gathering the stories for this issue on arts and culture, we also came across some hopeful stories in a very different arena: politics. I was lucky to have an opportunity to interview US Representative Dennis Kucinich, chair of the congressional Progressive Caucus, whose “Prayer for America” speech has been electrifying people across the country (interview ). Paul Ray, author of The Cultural Creatives, reports on the emergence of a significant new political constituency (article by Ray ). And Walden Bello provides an update on a gathering of tens of thousands in Porto Alegre, Brazil—an alternative to the World Economic Forum's agenda of corporate-led globalization (article by Bello ).