One of the most profound musical compositions of all time, the “Quartet for the End of Time,” was written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940 while a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. There was little food, water or warmth. Instead, there was torture, filth, infestation and, most of all, death.
And yet from those camps we have poetry, drawings, paintings, plays and all forms of music and literature. Why?
As people took to the streets after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they began singing “We Shall Overcome,” “America the Beautiful” and hymns of all kinds. The first organized public event in New York City was the “Brahms Requiem” at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. Why?
The first response by students after the massacre at Virginia Tech University was for the Hokies marching band to assemble and serenade the survivors outside their hospital windows. Why?
From the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., to Wichita State University’s memorial for the 1970 plane crash that killed members of the football team, works of art nourish our need to commune with the occasion to which the work is dedicated. Why?
Because when circumstances conspire to strip us of our humanity, we are determined to do the most human thing we can – art.
Art is part of survival. Art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is the way we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”
Humans are the only species that is self-reflective, and only humans attempt to answer the ultimate question: Why? The qualitative way we answer that question is the arts.
Anthropologists have uncovered ancient civilizations with no written language, no concept of math or time. They have never discovered one without art. All passes. Art alone endures.
One incident forever solidified for me my belief in the place the arts should have in our society. On Dec. 14, 2012, at the very moment 20-year-old Adam Lanza was fatally shooting 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, I was sitting in Century II Concert Hall watching more than 2,000 elementary children engrossed in a performance of the Nutcracker. The dichotomy of those two events haunts me to this day.
Maybe, just maybe, the exposure to that one bit of wonder will be the very thing that helped some nine-year-old in the audience down a path of goodness and normalcy instead of a path filled with evil. Goodness and evil are identical in one important way – the less of it one has in one’s life, the less of a chance it has of affecting that life.
We cannot protect others from evil, but we can, if we truly dedicate ourselves, give the gift of beauty and goodness. It just might be the very thing that saves us.
Without art, all passes. With art, we endure.
Rodney E. Miller is dean of the College of Fine Arts at Wichita State University.