The Art of Transformation
by Morwen Two Feathers
This essay first appeared in The Middlesex Beat in March, 2001. The expanded version posted here was published in the Winter 2002-3 issue of Gaian Voices, a quarterly newsletter published by Susan Meeker-Lowry.
Since I was a young girl, I have been a shameless people-watcher. Few things are as fascinating to me as the endless varieties of human behavior. In my ongoing attempt to understand the weird and wonderful things people do, I studied psychology, history, anthropology, and sociology, in school and out, reading obsessively and undertaking research.
My observations and learning fed my passion for social justice and change. As I watched, my conviction grew that there is something wrong with the way our society functions. How could the wealthiest, most democratic country in the world tolerate such poverty, racial prejudice, and environmental destruction? As teenage angst matured into adult fervor, I chose work in nonprofit organizations, trying to make the world a better place.
For a long time I did not think that my interests in art, music, and dance had any relevance to what I thought of as my "real work." Indeed, I suspected that these enjoyable artistic pursuits were trivial distractions from the real world. This idea was reinforced by many of the activists I knew. So, for many years I split myself into pieces, the academic, the activist, and the artist all vying for attention and energy. My pagan, Goddess-oriented spiritual identity seemed yet another separate and incompatible aspect of myself. As I have grown older and the mosaic pieces of my life form a pattern, Ive come to see that these aspects of myself are not as separate as I believed.
My investigations of human nature always brought me back to the concept of culture. In the social sciences, "culture" refers to the context of social life that is created through expressions of language and shared activity. Culture is the background against which economics, politics, education, indeed, all human dramas take place. When communal experience results in a shared definition of reality, then culture is being created. The arts, and especially interactive arts such as music, storytelling, theatre, and dance, tap into the deep well of collective experience, and thus are a rich source of culture. This is why "culture" is often understood as synonymous with "the arts," even though the meaning of culture encompasses much more.
Culture is not a static container of human life, but a living organism which is constantly changing. When an individual imagines a new story, song, or symphony -- or even a visual image -- and expresses it in a way that touches others, the changes created by that touching ripple out into the culture, transforming it. And when old stories are told in new ways, they subtly reshape our collective experience in a sort of cultural alchemy.
Social activists often reenact old stories of opposition and battle, fighting against aspects of the society that are unhealthy, oppressive, or just plain wrong. Yet often it seems that these battles do little to change the deeper cultural assumptions underlying our social arrangements, and the war seems to stretch out endlessly without breaking new cultural ground, even when particular battles are won. Indeed, I have heard social change activists assert that the struggle will go on forever, using this as a way to keep themselves going in the face of the intransigence of the dominant culture.
I believe that we can create a new culture by telling a new story. If it is true, as Ken Carey channels in his book "Vision," that "Evil flourishes where it is fought," then perhaps there is a more effective activism that is not based on struggle. Perhaps artistic expression may itself be a tool of social change, not just to energize and revitalize activists to continue the struggle, but to actually manifest the changes we envision.
My own thinking about social change and the arts has developed exponentially since becoming a mother. Motherhood has heightened my awareness of two apparently unrelated things: the depth and magnitude of the crisis we are in here on Earth, and the intensity and power of the imagination, so unselfconsciously expressed by children. Over the years I have come to see that the social problems I have been passionate about solving racism, sexism, poverty and social injustice all operate against a background of contempt for the natural world which is the bedrock of modern materialist, consumerist society. When I think about the world I want my child to inherit, before I can hope for opportunity and freedom, I find I must first hope for survival: clean air to breathe, water to drink, healthy food, stable sea levels and weather patterns, and the continued existence of trees, medicinal plants, and animals.
In the face of the threat to our survival as a species on this planet, the imaginative life of children seems trivial at first. Yet if you spend any time with children, it is impossible not to notice the extent to which imagination shapes their reality. And by extension, artistic expression which gives form to deep imaginative stirring may have extraordinary power to effect changes, not only in the hearts and minds of audiences, but in reality itself.
This insight about the power of creative imagination grew directly from my own journey of spiritual awakening, accelerated by parenting. It is supported and confirmed by the science of quantum physics, which clearly shows that all observable phenomena are influenced by the observers expectations. Not just the act of observing, but the very intentions and expectations of the observer demonstrably affect the outcomes of scientific experiments. For ages, mystics and sages of many cultures have been telling us that our thoughts create our reality. Now science is proving it.
There is another quote from "Visions" that captivated me recently. In it, Spirit says, "Use your cultural skills to design media presentations that will draw the sleeping of your species up out of the illusions that bind them." To me this feels like a direct instruction. Artistic expression is a powerful awakening tool. It bypasses peoples rational defenses and speaks directly to their hearts and souls. These days I am called to clothe my activism for the Earth in the shining fabric of my art, woven with the threads of many colors and textures that are spun from my experiences. I seek to co-create a new world with you, manifesting the affirmative vision that Gaias healing is not just possible but inevitable when human beings dare to activate our creative imagination. This vision informs everything I do, and it will inform this column in Gaian Voices. I welcome your responses.