In the days since Covid-19 caused us to distance and even isolate ourselves from one another, I’ve grown increasingly aware of the different fears taking hold. Some, if not most, of this fear may stem from our inability to creatively imagine the future in the midst of a present that itself feels inconceivable. These days, more than most, I am reminded of the need to build up our creative muscles if for no other reason than to help us to imagine a collective future where hope and fear are in better balance.
The connection between creativity and vision has always been important to me and reminds me of a parable I love about six blind men and an elephant. A group of blind men are traveling together down a hot jungle road when they bump up against a large elephant in their way. Each man explores a separate section of the animal’s body and confidently identifies it. Holding the elephant’s tail, the first man shouts to his companions: “This path is full of ropes!” The second man, exploring a leg, yells back, “No, there are trees in our way.” A third man, examining one of two large sharp tusks warns, “There are soldiers with spears who mean to harm us.” The fourth man, touching an ear, insists the elephant is a fan. The fifth man with the trunk believes they are surrounded by snakes. The six men, equally convinced of the Truth exposed by their unique findings, begin to quarrel. “A spear!” “A tree!” “An army!” “A wall!” “A snake!” “A fan!” they shout. A wise king appears and orders the blind men to stop fighting. Only by bringing their impressions together will they come to understand the thing before them.
As a singer and performer, I often felt isolated within a blinding spotlight, but it was when I was on stage that the meaning behind the parable of the six men came into better focus, and the seed of my interdisciplinary arts curriculum, Consenses, began to take root. Collecting 22 professional photographs that represented one thing, I asked 22 musicians to interpret the photographs and express them in song. I gave each of the songs they created to different painters who extracted the essence of the song they were given and expressed their understanding on a canvas. The paintings inspired dancers, the dances inspired poems, the poems inspired perfumes, and the perfumes inspired sculptors. The process continued to create these “Interpretive Chains” until all five senses were represented.
In the end, over 150 artists from around the world had participated in the game of artistic “Telephone” and Consenses (“with the senses”) was born. Each chain was revealed in a multi-sensory exhibition where visitors could come interpret the collaborative for themselves and leave their own artistic expression, becoming the last link in the chain reaction.
Since my touring days, my belief that art is a conversation has only amplified. It doesn’t have to exist as a destination, it can be a journey. Art can be used as a language and a lens through which to see ourselves, each other, and our world more clearly, compassionately, and expansively. Art, when used as a language, has the power to reveal our collective oneness, point us to a greater truth, retrieve us from our isolation and, in so doing, alleviate us of fear and our very greatest human sufferings.
With the aid of Harvard School of Education graduate students, I have been able to develop a unique social-emotional learning, multidisciplinary arts curriculum, Consenses, in which students can collaborate to create Interpretive Chains over the course of a semester or a full year. In the process, students learn tolerance and empathy through “listening” to others, not through their words, but through various art forms. By enabling communication through a medium other than language, Consenses is highly effective at spreading the message that everyone’s perspective is equal and valid, helping people to appreciate in new ways both the limitations and the unique value of their own perspectives.
Our world is still a ways away from coming back to gather together physically. But we are capable, if not responsible, for collectively imagining a shared future. With equal voices and respect and tolerance for all perspectives, we can alleviate some of the fear we’re feeling. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to use our creativity to imagine the future together.