Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arts Education: Against Ignorance

The following arrived in my inbox today from Opera America:

National Arts in Education Week, September 12-18, 2010
On July 26, the House of Representatives passed a resolution designating the second week of September National Arts in Education Week. Introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), the Congressional Resolution declares, "Arts education, comprising a rich array of disciplines including dance, music, theater, media arts, literature, design and visual arts, is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students."

How telling that so essential a topic as arts education has been completely ignored as the nation focuses on a prospective act of base ignorance, the so-called "International Burn-a-Koran Day" scheduled for September 11 by an ignorant pastor and his misguided flock of 50 in Gainesville, FL.

One article I saw earlier today had the best advice I've seen yet:

"The best way to respond to Quran burnings is Quran readings, recitations, teaching, learning, sharing, living the best of the principles found therein," said Zaheer Ali, a New York Muslim leader and doctoral student at Columbia University. The pastor in question, Terry Jones, would make an excellent candidate for Ali's assignment, since he admitted having "no experience with it [The Quran] whatsoever."

One month ago I posted an essay called "An Ideal of International Harmony" and it referenced conductors like Georg Solti's and Daniel Barenboim's efforts to bring together ensembles of international personnel to embody just such an ideal.

Consciousness and conscience have been much on mind and in my heart this summer. While I try never to use this platform as a political forum, nor even veer towards the polemic, I do think we--as artists and fundamentally, human beings--should be more bold in affirming our common humanity and speaking, singing, playing & acting against ignorance.

I have also been referencing disparate voices that have been on my reading list this summer, and as is my wont, trying my best to weave them together with common threads. I believe one of my primary roles as an artistic director is to be an educator. And not just to middle, high school, and university students. The E.M. Foster epigram, "only connect" motivates me to fill in gaps in my own education. Gaps in our heads lead to holes in our hearts. Ignorance is the enemy of empathy. When coupled with fear & fueled by prejudice, ignorance leads to atrocities like the Inquisition and the Holocaust. The multi-layered textures of art are an antidote to ignorance. They are a rich source of tradition & learning, inspiration & innovation, and are a great place to start filling in those gaps of consciousness and conscience.

One of the compliments I treasure most is when someone remarks on the thoughtfulness of my programming. One of the Chorale's critics wrote last fall "if any area organization takes its education mission seriously, it is the Virginia Chorale." He was not referring to our Young Singers Project. He was referencing an eclectic program that combined familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, and juxtaposed Renaissance madrigals with a modern Shakespeare setting by Dominick Argento dedicated to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Another recent addition to my summer reading list is a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Its subtitle is "Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the Stauffenberg "Die Walküre" plot to assassinate Hitler (the story was made into a recent film starring Tom Cruise, Valkyrie).

The book's chapters feature epigrams from Bonhoeffer's incisive writings and quotes worth remembering:

"When books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too."

That quote by the German, Jewish-born poet Heinrich Heine mirrors Sigmund Freud's chilling observation (following a 1933 "cleansing" of "un-German" books): "Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them."

One of the most famous poems of conscience is quoted in Eric Metaxas' biography. It comes from a colleague of Bonhoeffer's, who made the tragic mistake of giving Hitler an early benefit of the doubt.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak for me.

--Martin Niemöller

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has just ended, and the Jewish High Holy Days have just begun. I listened to my favorite Chanticleer recording earlier in honor of the interconnectedness of the three central Abrahamic faiths (that would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in order of seniority). And on Earth, Peace features movements representing all three. The Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince contributed "Gloria (Everywhere)" which opens with a wonderfully fragrant image from the 13th century Sufist poet Rumi (who lived in what is now Afghanistan):

the aroma of God
begins to arrive

The heart of the 12' movement sings an interfaith message of international harmony:

Moslems and Christians and Jews
raising their hands to the sky
their chanting voice in unison
begin to arrive

Later on the poet offers an antidote to ignorance all sides of today's bitterly divided world should heed:

if your eyes are marred
with petty visions
wash them with tears
your teardrops are healers
as they begin to arrive

(from Fountain of Fire, Rumitrans. by Nader Khalili,
Burning Gate Press, 1994, and CalEarth, 1996)

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Wittgenstein's most famous aphorism creates a wide berth of application. Those who have not read the Quran and have not had conversations with Muslims have no business speaking about the subject, whether it be a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan or Islam itself.

"Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it," said the founder of modern political conservatism, Edmund Burke. One of the best op-ed pieces I've read during this xenophobic summer comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman. "Where has all the love gone?" was reprinted in Sunday's Virginian-Pilot. He quotes at length comments "in the best American tradition" of considerable insight & intelligence, from a source that might surprise quite a few readers. They come from a 2007 ceremony at the Islamic Center in Washington:

"We come to express our appreciation for a faith that has enriched civilization for centuries. We come in celebration of America's diversity of faith and our unity as free people. And we hold in our hearts the ancient wisdom of the great Muslim poet Rumi: 'The lamps are different, but the light is the same.'" (George W. Bush)

The Chorale and Opera Roanoke are preparing to open their 2010-2011 seasons in October. The Chorale is performing music written by another victim of Hitler's Third Reich, the Lutheran composer, Hugo Distler. Opera Roanoke is opening with a gala-style concert based on three different versions of Goethe's Faust legend. Goethe is to German literature what Shakespeare is to English. A paradigm of the lifelong learner, Goethe began studying Arabic in his 60's, to learn more about Islamic art and culture. Daniel Barenboim's orchestra of middle-eastern musicians is named after Goethe's cross-cultural collection of poetry, The West-Eastern Divan.

Neither program is built or centered on interfaith dialogue, consciousness or tolerance. But music has a special power. It won't stop violence nor cure ignorance. But it shines a light into the hearts of those who open to it. A light lit, to borrow from the Quran, "within a crystal of star-like brilliance."

The ancient Chinese proverb, "it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness" is eminently good advice, for activists, artists and human beings of all parties, creeds, and affiliations.

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