We human beings have a long history of proposing theories to unify disparate truths. This yearning to find a transcendent meaning for separate bodies of evidence may be one of our distinguishing traits. You have probably noticed this impulse in your own life: a series of experiences prompts the sense that something is hidden in the bundle of them. Your inner smarts work on the challenge—rationally, via various unconscious processes, and even while sleeping. The “Aha!” moment of identifying the deeper pattern in the evidence is satisfying and joyful; it launches a whole new set of possibilities for you as a person, as an artist.
I see the separate disciplines and fields within the arts and arts learning in that light because, although they seem to comprise disparate bodies of truth, my gut tells me that meaningful, unifying, common truths await, hidden in plain sight. Truths, that when embraced, can change the status quo.
You would be hard pressed to argue that we are a unified field. Practitioners of different art forms just don’t think of themselves as part of a larger functional entity. Even though multidisciplinary performances and presentations are increasingly common, the various artistic tribes compete more often than they cooperate, believing that the concerns they share are less significant than the ones they face on their own. A regional theater company looks at a choral ensemble and does not see much resemblance; a string quartet looks at a small dance ensemble or a struggling art gallery and does not see itself mirrored there.
Likewise, the divisions within arts education never seem to resolve. We waste energy on the same familial tiffs we have had for decades: disciplinary instruction vs. arts integration, arts education for art’s sake vs. arts education to produce other benefits, certified arts instructors vs. teaching artists, in-school learning vs. all the learning that happens outside of school—and what about the granny who plays the ukulele? These old hostilities, prejudices, and cross-purposes persist within a culture of scarcity, eroding the expansive, inclusive impulses that got us into arts-learning in the first place.
As a consultant, I have had many opportunities to try to build local arts partnerships and consortia; the usual strategy is to identify common goals and thereby foster a joint commitment to actions that will lift all the organizational boats together. Sometimes progress is made, and there are inspiring examples of success in a few cities; more often, the separateness of the participants is palpable and pervasive, caution and distrust remain entrenched, and the proposed partners have no shared language. This last point takes a while to surface, and is hard to admit—each doesn’t really know what the other is talking about, or the separate fields don’t agree on some fundamental point. You don’t believe me? Try discussing with an artist from another discipline what you think creativity really is.
The current painful economic constriction may be the catalyst we need to change our habits of thinking and jump us out of our ruts. As Rahm Emmanuel said when he was appointed White House Chief of Staff: “A crisis is too good an opportunity to waste.”
What Good Is a Unifying Theory, Anyway?
Newton's theory of universal gravitation (1687) provided a unifying explanation for separate bodies of evidence on tidal patterns, Galileo's theory of Earth's gravity, and Kepler’s laws of planetary influence. Adopted by scientists, and then by Western culture at large, Newton’s theory erased the truth as it was known, writing the new understanding of reality and sparking an explosion of inquiry into forces of attraction in physics.
Two and a half centuries later, the term Unified Field Theory (also known colloquially as the Theory of Everything) was coined by Einstein and captures the drive of his mature years to find a deep, unifying truth beneath persistently separate but related bodies of evidence. Einstein sought to explain the distinct forces of relativity, electromagnetism and gravity by discovering the fundamental particles that interact in all.
That ongoing search by physicists later led to quantum mechanics, the formulation of string theory, and—now—searches for the theoretical Higgs boson. Particle physicists know of five fundamental kinds of bosons—the term for the smallest particles in the universe that carry force. Four of the five types have been observed experimentally; these are called gauge bosons. The Higgs boson is hypothesized yet still unseen; but the drive to find it is not theoretical—you may have heard news reports of the recently completed construction of the Large Hadron Collider by the European scientific consortium called CERN. It is an underground, 17-mile-circumference atom smasher near Geneva Switzerland, and the most expensive construction project in human history. At this point, it is the greatest technological hope to provide evidence of the Higgs boson and how it works.
If we come to know how it works, the Higgs boson may unify the currently separate force fields of gravitation, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces. Some physicists believe that the discovery will explain such ultimate mysteries as why matter becomes mass and why there is something instead of nothing. No wonder that the Higgs boson is sometimes called the God particle.
For those outside of particle physics, the search for a unified field theory can be seen as quixotic and pointlessly conceptual, the work of eggheads who can't boil an egg. We live in an aggressively anti-intellectual culture, particularly unfriendly to meta-headed endeavors, but even that bias can’t deflect the truth that the impulse to find unity underneath seemingly disparate phenomena has led to some of the greatest breakthroughs in human understanding.
How Does It Apply to Us?
I believe the time has come for arts educators and others in the arts to grapple with their own unified field theory. We have lived and struggled separately and sometimes fear we may die separately; yet I see an emerging belief that we have much in common and that we enhance the visibility and viability of all if we identify and act on our common ground. Dozens of cities and regions are trying to build a local arts and/or arts education community to better their collective future. Information about this very impulse in Dallas, Richmond, Portland, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Providence and New York came across my desk in various forms in just one day, yesterday. Last summer’s National Performing Arts Conference in Denver is another case in point. It was the largest such gathering ever, explicitly dedicated to building a more unified field; and the thousands of participants voted on common steps to build a national community.
Jim Collins, keynote speaker at the Denver conference, made a couple of points that went right at the heart of our challenge. Collins is a highly influential and credible business “guru”—the author, consultant, and leader of the bestselling “good to great” research on what makes businesses excel. I confess I was none too thrilled that a business leader was positioned as the keynoter for this historic arts gathering; part of me cringed that we would be asked to use a business model to come together as a field. But Collins has studied nonprofit organizations extensively, is an expert on what organizations must do in turbulent times (yes, that’s now), and he’s passionate about the arts—so I listened with an open mind. Lucky thing, too, because he made two points that I found essential to the consideration of a Unified Arts Field Theory.
Re-thinking the “Mission Statement.”
Collins’s first point—not controversial—was that in turbulent times, an organization must get the right people “on the bus,” refocus on its primary mission, and experiment boldly to fulfill that mission. But his second point was a follow-up so challenging that many people didn’t take it in. He said that most of us in the arts have a completely wrong-headed idea of our true mission (or core values or beliefs, but let’s not get stuck in semantics). Collins argues that we mistakenly assume our mission is to present our particular and beloved artistic canon, the greatest artworks, old and new. He suggests our core values are exactly not that, that our favorite artworks are the means by which we have try to fulfill the core values of art, and according to his research, that is exactly where we must experiment. To rediscover our purpose, to live long and prosper, we must let go of our focus on programming favorite artworks, old and new, and instead boldly experiment with engaging people in artistic experiences. We must reconnect with the human art instinct.
The excellent new book The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton (Bloomsbury USA, 2008) argues compellingly that art is a universal human evolutionary advantage that goes back to our Stone Age roots.
The arts have been around since at least Day Two of human history (ornamental jewelry goes back 80,000 years, painting almost as far—and that’s not mentioning our impulses to create dance, music and to tell stories, which undoubtedly are even more ancient). Artistic expression is not just the province of artists; it appears spontaneously, irrepressibly, throughout each of our lives, mostly in forms and venues not identified with Art with a capital A. So, how have we let the identity of art get quarantined as an occasional pricey event in a special building?
Art appears in every endeavor raised to its highest level of expression, and more commonly in our conversations, hobbies, homes, as we dance at parties … anywhere people slip into the work and play of art. The core value for those of us in the arts professions—engaging people in the richness of the artistic experience—is to prompt that universal sense of meaning, richness, “specialness,” and satisfaction. It feels good—really good—the kind of good feeling that is hard to find in our overstimulated, materialistic, multitasking lives.
In order to unify our disparate arts, we need to find the quintessential elements of that human experience. We need to identify the fundamental particle or particles at the basis of the attraction, a Higgs boson for the human movement toward the artistic experience. And if we can agree around that unifying principle, I believe we can begin to answer the Jim Collins challenge in a powerful way, by experimenting boldly to bring people into the common, universal, highly-valued human experience of art. Not just those who already value the arts, but also those who aren’t in the club and don’t think about or care about the arts, yet yearn for fullness in their lives. We need to move the experience of art to the center of our intention, and reclaim Homo sapiens’ cultural birthright of artistic engagement.
What happens in gospel-choir-and-audience singing that can fill the recital hall and stir the soul? What is the element that turns a good conversation into a great conversation that can be delivered in every theater? How is it that an encounter with a violinist in a fifth-grade classroom can spark a kid to be more curious about social studies? What is the sine qua non, the irreducible core, of all the different ways in which the artistic impulse has expressed itself in human history?
Identifying Our Own Higgs Boson.
Our field needs the debate as much as we need an answer. To get us started, let me posit my own hypothetical answer to spark further answers from others. Get mad at my opinion, please, to fuel the sharing of your own.
I think the fundamental act is the spark of connection. The spark may be literal, as the firing of a new synaptic link in the brain; and it is also metaphoric for making something new. The etymology of the word art means to put things together. The Higgs boson of art is the individual’s act of creation, of putting together things that matter to that individual. This makes us human and makes us feel human, feel alive, feel connected to others. Making a connection, look at the idiom: creating something that bridges a gap of separateness.
This fundamental act of art occurs when we find the right word in a poem or the dance move that captures what we know and cannot say. We spark the arts connection when we enter a “world” made by someone else (a work of art, a spoken image, a story, an eloquent gesture) and find a personally relevant connection inside it. We fire the art connection when we pick just the right song to play for a suffering friend and when we listen deeply to a friend’s story and connect to its unspoken core. We slip into the physics of art when we resonate inside with the note just played, when we experience a sense of eternity under a night sky.
The power of the moment is not just “understanding” the world of a work of art, or “appreciating” it or even “enjoying” it. The boson is the creative act of making a new connection inside it. The fundamental power of an artwork is tapped not only by completing its construction, but also by making any meaningful new connection of your own.
Fundamental particles don’t just exist; they influence each other in ways that manifest as electromagnetism and gravity, creating matter. Similarly, artistic bosons do not passively exist, but accrue force that manifests as human affinities such as: intrinsic motivation (doing things from your personal energy and yearning, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, which drives all the other ways things happen in the world), curiosity, playfulness, satisfaction and gratitude (they seem linked in my experience), the recognition of beauty, the experience of love, and the cohesion of groups and communities. No wonder the arts have sustained since the beginning of human history—this is the list of the best parts of being alive. They provide unity, attraction, and the reason there is something to being a human instead of being nothing.
The unified field theory then challenges us to answer: What can we do, as believers in the power of the fundamental act of creation, to align our actions, our creations, our organizations, our intentions and interactions with everyone inside and outside the arts to maximize that power? How can we create environments that effectively, irresistibly support and nurture that power? What events can we devise that are dedicated to that power, not merely to the presentation of artworks that we hope will contain it for those few who pay to attend?
Are you whining, “Why can’t we just play the heck out of Haydn quartets and be done with it? Why should we bother with all this?” Because fewer and fewer people are able to feel the spark of connection inside the canon of artworks we love, no matter how well you play the Haydn. If you are content with being part of the slow demise you complain about, fine. Our culture is not losing the art instinct, but turning it away from the fields that we believe are its most fertile ground. If you want to help the arts thrive and reclaim their ancient human birthright, start experimenting, boldly, with the clarity and care of a physicist, to find out how you can spark that act of creation in everyone you meet.
And the more important reason to grapple with the awkwardness of this challenge is that it recharges us as artists, in our most important cultural roles, as the voice of human truth, as re-creators of human relevance amid the dehumanizing forces of society, as fierce warriors for the human birthright of artistry in our brief time together. Our field does not have expensive new machinery to produce the evidence that will unify our field, but we can collide with each other in dialogue to find the evidence that guides us to experiment boldly, brilliantly, effectively, as artists do, to tap our most fundamental human force and channel it into artistic encounters.
Eric Booth is co-founder of the Mentoring and Arts & Education Programs at The Juilliard School, founding editor of Teaching Artist Journal, national and international consultant to many arts organizations, and author of The Everyday Work of Art, and the new book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible from Oxford University Press. He works with arts education programs around the country. Contact: email@example.com