Creating Justice

At Brandeis we are engaged in an ongoing debate – sometimes creative, sometimes controversial – about the role of art in our time. Throughout history, the arts have been humankind’s greatest expression of beauty. Instinctively we are drawn to works of art that inspire us with wonder and awe at the magnificence of the human spirit. This glorious exaltation needs no justification or explanation. As Pablo Picasso stated, "Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life."

The great German playwright Bertolt Brecht had a radically different notion, however. "Art is not a mirror held up to reality," he asserted, "but a hammer with which to shape it." In today’s global society, which is increasingly more demographically segmented and technology driven, are the arts really a viable tool for social transformation? Does the artist as citizen have the ability, or perhaps even the responsibility, to repair the world? What function does art have in influencing social justice – a core value of the university named for Louis Brandeis?

Most of us would agree that the arts have some ability to influence thought, but when does art cross the line from creative expression to didactic propaganda? If art is an expression of personal truth, whose truth should we believe?

Most learning is cognitive. Our brains learn to recognize the color blue, or a fact from history, or mathematic formulas that are consistent throughout time. Art does the opposite – it constantly reminds us that some things are infinitely, splendidly unknowable and paradoxical. How can one "understand" the experience of a Mozart symphony? How can one "define" the essence of a painting by Jackson Pollack? Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet" more than 400 years ago, and yet we still don’t know why the Prince of Denmark has such difficulty seeking justice for his father’s murder. We still don’t know if it is better to be or not to be. Each new production of "Hamlet" reminds us that no single interpretation is correct or definitive. We must continually relearn and re-evaluate the play’s themes and ideas for their unique personal and social relevance.

This process of revelation is a powerful antidote to social structures that encourage us to see the world in absolute terms – good or evil, American or un-American, Conservative Right or Liberal Left, red state or blue state. Art reminds us there are so many colors in between. By reminding us that humanity is changeable and unknowable, the arts can stimulate choices that are inclusive, empathetic, and yes, even hopeful.

Theater, music and the visual arts allow us to see beyond categories – to experience dimensions that defy economic, racial, political and geographical boundaries. They illuminate the emotions and psychology behind complex social issues, transcending sound bites, polemic rhetoric and Internet hyperbole. The arts invite us to unlock our ethical imagination.

But can socially-engaged art also exemplify the highest aesthetic values? As artists and arts patrons, must we choose between beauty and justice? Or can they somehow coexist in a creative moment which simply and profoundly human?

The Brandeis arts community invites you to consider such questions. We are dedicated to "nurturing the union of the imagination and the intellect in the pursuit of personal truth, social justice and artistic freedom." I’ve come to believe that these three ideals are not only compatible, but inseparable.

Scott Edmiston
Director, Office of the Arts