Reflecting on the recent election results brings me back to one of the more befuddling observations about trends in arts participation that I’ve been holding in my head since the late-1990s… the blurring line between fantasy and reality. The flourishing of fictitious online personas, resulting in millions of people growing comfortable holding multiple identities, both real and imagined; the rise of gaming, virtual reality, and augmented reality; the false intimacy offered by social media and, especially, dating apps; the valuing of celebrities for no reason apart from their celebrity; the lost line between entertainment and journalism; record sales of lottery tickets; growing dependence on substances that induce altered states; Las Vegas; sustained public interest in ‘reality’ television, which increasingly resembles fiction; and the substitution in political discourse of ‘truthiness’ for truth.
The signs of our society’s departure from reality have all but disappeared for their ubiquity. Some have framed this as a spiritual crisis, a displacement of belief systems from sacred to profane.
Of course we are all guilty of constructing altered versions of reality for ourselves. A million seemingly harmless deceits of truth bring us comfort, simplicity, and validation in a world mired in existential threats. It is hardly surprising, then, that Americans believe whatever politicians tell them, and I don’t mean that in a partisan way. We’ve been building an appetite for unreality for a long time, with a lot of help from commercial entertainment and the media. As Neal Gabler wrote in his searing essay of November 10, “I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived.”
We, in the arts, are hardly innocent of exploiting fiction to lead audiences into our version of “the truth.” In our field, fiction has always been the battleground of truth, and theatres the venue in a lopsided war of ideas, pitting artists against audiences — when, in reality, they are not opponents but allies. Like Don Quixote, we’ve been nobly fighting an imaginary foe, blind to the fact that the proverbial “public” we seek to engage in art inhabits a world entirely different than ours. In a way, politicians have become more like artists — spinning tales threaded together with half-truths and imagined facts.
As a researcher, I struggle mightily with the elusive notion of truth. Another time I will write about the demise of public confidence in quantitative research — and the extraordinary challenges this poses to those of us who purport to be researchers and those who aspire to be savvy consumers of research.
Until we are completely transmogrified into digital avatars of ourselves, fantasy will reliably crash into reality when we cash our paychecks and visit the doctor. However facile we are in toggling between fact and fiction in the blink of an eye, our ability to discern one from the other is what keeps us alive. Unlike much of the media, art invites us to suspend our disbelief for a fleeting moment to consider an idea that offends our sense of order. In that moment of resistance, we are human.
This is a great time of reckoning for our sector. Despite the messages I’ve received from national service organizations over the past weeks assuring me that everything is going to be OK, it’s abundantly clear to me that everything has not been OK for quite some time. Cultural policy has failed us. Patterns of investment in cultural infrastructure too often reinforce class divides instead of tearing them down. Disinvestment in rural arts and declining support for touring programs has taken a toll. More nonprofits and funders should have moved into the realms of gaming and experience design a long time ago. Who dropped that ball?
It is precisely because art offers a different means of understanding the world that it is more central to public discourse than ever before. As traffickers in beauty and confrontation, artists and those who support them have the power to change the world. We speak the language of make believe. We can draw people into parallel universes where they can ask questions they’d never pose in the real world. Unlike politicians, art can teach us to think for ourselves, and that truth often lies at the nexus of opposing ideas.
Spinning tall tales, however, comes with a sobering responsibility. Do we use fiction to entertain, or hold up a mirror to ourselves in search of a deeper truth? Or, do we employ fantasy to seduce those most vulnerable to seduction? What marks the line between play and betrayal? Now more than ever I wonder what role the arts can play in building our capacity as a society to care about the difference.