The past week was filled with tension, an ominous presence looming over Ann Arbor. Charged comments, tangible unrest and the lasting exhaustion of countless opinions filled the overcast days. Everyone on guard for the inevitable, Inauguration Day came and went. Silence was all that was heard.
The other day, one of my good friends and I got into a disagreement over the importance of the arts. Considering this discussion transpired between an economics major and a musician, you can imagine how this went. Our bickering came to rest, but I was left with a troubling question: Why should some be able to experience the arts, play an instrument, go to a show or the movies, study art or even watch Netflix when there is so much suffering in the world? There are so many issues that need attention, but without honest communication, fixing any of them is hopeless. A silence has washed over the country where words are meaningless and passive-aggressive sentiments are the only common ground people seem to share.
Art has insurmountable power. It transcends boundaries, speaks through silence and allows people to communicate on common ground. It does not matter what language you speak, what political views you hold or what religion you practice; anyone can experience, enjoy and discuss art if given the opportunity. People from entirely different backgrounds can go to the same concert and share their views without the fear of offending one another. An orchestra filled with people from all around the world will not be hindered by a language barrier. Music is the language we share –– full of empathy, veracity and passion.
One of the easiest questions to ask someone on a first date is, “What kind of music do you listen to?" It’s a common ground that can strengthen bonds between people who are otherwise opposites. Far from a distraction from the "important" things, art is a necessary medium among an otherwise impossibly diverse population.
In a room filled with thousands of people, music gives way to a common understanding. A concert brings strangers into a room and creates a community. Sing along as loud as you want, dance your heart away, cry if you feel so inclined, but do not hold back. The crowd is your friend, everyone is here for the same reason: to feel something. There is something referred to as the “post concert daze,” that feeling you get after attending a show that lasts maybe a week. You feel as though you know what really matters in life; it’s a feeling of unity and enlightenment.
Germany caught on to the relationship between music and community as the Elbphilharmonie Hall finally opened in Hamburg last week. Anyone can attend a concert in the hall with tickets starting at just 15 euros while full access to the public is given by a free observation deck with a 360-degree view of the city. By opening its doors to people of all classes, the Elbphilharmonie begins to break the association of classical music with the elite.
The hall is an architectural masterpiece. Every seat in the house is no more than 100 feet from the conductor — all without sacrificing acoustics. The hall is also working to integrate refugees into society. In March, a Syrian music and culture festival will take place for residents. By promoting community through culture, the hall paves the way to a stronger community in spite of vast differences.
Post Cold-War art was defined as the “aesthetic of indifference.” In a time of such controversy and unrest, art could have been angry and loud, but it was far from it. Expression was blank; the players were cool and intelligent. While they seemed to abstain from anything political, their art spoke loudly and influentially. It allowed people to speak when they could not find a voice.
John Cage was a musical leader during this period. I have studied Cage's composition "4'33" in numerous classes. It’s frustrating on the most basic level, but further thought reveals its genius. It’s a three movement composition, each with the word "Tacet," — or pause — written. Essentially, you watch a man sit at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. There is an anticipation that builds in the beginning, as the audience is filled with the expectation of the musician to play. Patience is put to the test as the realization sets in that he is not going to. Instead, your attention is drawn to your surroundings.
The sounds of snoring, coughing and the scratching of pen on paper become the music and sideways glances turn each audience member into the performer. The composition yells, "TAKE A LOOK AT YOURSELF" and "BE AWARE." It forces a message to set in: Stop looking at the one musician when what really matters is everyone around you. Someone could tell me every day to be more aware, and it wouldn’t sink in like Cage's thought-provoking masterpiece.
Art is both a means of communication in itself and a communal platform. Its power goes beyond the creator and enters the world of the individual. The Elbphilharmonie Hall is a new experience for people to share. Cage used his music to speak for himself and for the many who could not find a voice. A piece of music can break your heart without your knowing why, and yet somehow you accept it. This is the type of understanding that can change the world.
On January 21, the streets of Ann Arbor were filled with people wearing pink hats and marching together. Decorated signs filled the air on this unseasonably warm and sunny day. An energy returned to the city that can only be compared to Wolverine game days as passion and community came together. The rally becomes a form of art when people come together to express themselves.
There is an undeniable power in a strong community. This and honest communication give society the capacity to solve the many problems we face. With minds already poisoned by false information and innate biases, what better place to start than on common ground — art.