Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Making Light From Darkness

During the better part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the scientific consensus was that we would one day figure it all out. The universe was but a clockwork and given enough time, humans would come to understand it. Today, however, we know enough to know that we will never know everything. We can only know what we can perceive, what our senses can take in, what our brains can interpret, but we are very limited in our abilities, adapted to a certain niche, one that causes us to, for instance, see time as something that flows from past to present, even as we now know that this "understanding" is merely an accident of our unique perspective and the limitations of our senses.

At it's core, life will always be a mystery. Art is the human response to the unknowable: it is how we teach ourselves to live with the mystery.

This explains why humans are driven to engage in art. Since the dawn of humankind, we have made music, danced, told stories, and created physical representations of life as we experience it, both externally and internally. Many of us still place "science" on a pedestal, pushing art aside as a kind of amusement. Increasingly, our schools have done this, replacing the arts with "instructional time," in order to focus almost exclusively on literacy and mathematics, the hammer and sickle of science, tools that are seen as necessary to engage in a clockwork world, a world that we now know doesn't exist. Those of us who work with young children have found ourselves in the sad position of having to defend our work, to defend childhood play, to defend our commitment to filling our charges' world with opportunities to dance, sing, pretend, and paint, to engage with the mystery that will always lie at the heart of life.

As I watch children play, I certainly see them engaged in the foundational scientific process of trial and error. What happens when I do this? I wonder if I can make that happen again. They are scientists for sure, but they are at least in equal measure artists, acknowledging from the start the limits of their own perceptions and learning to live with that by saying to one another, "Let's pretend . . ." When they aren't experimenting, they are making art with whatever comes to hand, arranging stones in a circle or leaves into patterns. Sometimes they paint what they see; sometimes they paint what they feel. They dance even when there isn't music, kicking up their legs, leaping, skipping, and twirling as they perform even the mundane act of moving from here to there. When they sing at the tops of their lungs, when they make rhythms by beating on buckets, they are teaching themselves how to live with the mystery.

Art stands at the center of the human experience: it is how we make light from darkness.

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