In December of last year as part of our ongoing Art of Change initiative, we brought together a small group of experts and thinkers in a range of fields—psychology, economics, art, philosophy, public policy–to discuss the topic of beauty. The goal was to ask how we might more effectively articulate, value, and nurture beauty as a basic need and right. 

The conversation had two parts:

  • Making the case for why beauty is essential to the health of human beings and society, and how it can be a catalyst for justice.
  • Expanding the space for beauty in our contemporary discourse and policymaking, and understanding the role of art and artists in that shift.

For the next few weeks we will be sharing contributions on the topic by some of the participants in the convening, including Anna Marazuela Kim, and Gladstone “Fluney” Hutchinson. Here, Sarah Ruhl shares what she learned from creative women who see life is poetry, and Tibetan Lamas who value culture as capital. 

Sarah Ruhl, Playwright

Let me start by quoting Elizabeth Bishop, who once wrote to Robert Lowell:

“Oh heavens, when does one begin to write the real poems? I certainly feel as if I never had. But of course I don’t feel that way about yours. They all seem real as real and getting more so. They all have that sure feeling, as if you’d been in a stretch when everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry, or not material, seemed to be poetry. If only one could see everything that way all the time. It seems to me it’s the whole purpose of art. That rare feeling of control, illuminating. Life is alright, for the time being.”

Bishop describes so accurately the feeling an artist or an audience has when seized by the feeling of beauty: That life actually is poetry; that life is alright for the moment.

Now I want to tell you about another woman poet I know. Jennifer June Buckley is a poet of rare gifts and embodies Bishop’s vision of seeing life as poetry much of the time. I met her twenty years ago at a creative writing class I was teaching for developmentally disabled adults in Blackstone Valley Industries in Pawtucket, Rhode Island—a place not known for its beauty. Jennifer—who has Down Syndrome—wrote constantly in remarkable streams about the beauty of ordinary life and the people she knew. Here is one of her poems:

“Keeping a journal/looks like a white bird/I am your friend/I am your girlfriend/I am your boyfriend/I am in the hospital/very long time/Saw my doctor/I was six years old/I forgot tell him/Happy Valentine’s Day/Name is Dr. Phillip Lucas/Came my rescue.”

She startled me into beauty. She made me see beauty in a place full of cigarette butts, unpleasant smells, and the promise of burned Dunkin Donuts coffee after longs stretches of monotonous piece-work. She made poetry that transformed everyday life. Her poetry could shake a cynic by the shoulders and say: “Pay attention to beauty.” It is the power of close observation suffused with love.

We are also talking today about justice—not helpfulness—but I do think that when we talk about social justice and art we are also talking about equality and access and helpfulness and usefulness, rather than seeing art as encased in a platonic and hermetic vacuum apart from the people who are served by it. When writing my play The Oldest Boy, which featured a reincarnated Tibetan Lama, I called many people in the Tibetan community for help and insight. I’ll never forget when I wrote to a Tibetan scholar who wrote back immediately: ”I am happy to talk with you as your play might benefit other sentient beings.” I thought: “Oh my. He is assuming that art is helpful.” When we rehearsed The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center we had two Tibetan Lamas come visit and answer questions and bless the room. At one point, Lama Pema looked at us keenly and said: “Art and religion aren’t very different.” Then he started laughing and said: “And someone’s got to do it.” Then he laughed some more. His laughter held conviction that art and religion are difficult and also essential to a culture that values consciousness and gentleness. He said: “For Tibetans, culture is our capital. We have an economy of culture.” He told us when the Dalai Lama went into exile after the occupation of Tibet, the first thing that he did was to set up a training program in India to preserve Tibetan dance, music, and art. The first act of the nation in exile was not to set up an army, but instead to preserve culture. This confidence in art’s helpful quality is not a deeply held conviction in this country—though it might be a deeply held unconscious belief held by artists—but it’s not confidently articulated in the culture at large. In our culture, art is often defined by its very uselessness; but artists know that art is not useless, or else they would not make it. Audiences know that art is not useless, or else they would not come. What if one primary goal of justice were to create a world in which all people can experience and create beauty? If empathy for the other is a precondition for justice, and if beauty creates empathy, then perhaps in a world of diminishing empathy and increasing violence, we all must make more room for art.

About SarahSarah Ruhl is a playwright whose works include The Oldest Boy, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, The Clean House, Passion Play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Melancholy Play, Eurydice, Orlando, Late: A Cowboy Song, Dear Elizabeth, and Stage Kiss. She is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nalist and a Tony Award nominee. Her plays have been produced on Broadway, and off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage Theatre, and Lincoln Center’s Lyceum and Mitzi Newhouse Theaters. Her plays have also been produced all over the US and internationally, often with premieres at Yale Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Goodman Theatre, and the Piven Theatre Workshop in Chicago. In 2014, Sarah was the second most frequently produced playwright in the country. She has received the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Whiting Award, the Lilly Award, a PEN award for mid-career playwrights, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Her book of essays, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, was published by Faber and Faber last fall. Sarah teaches at the Yale School of Drama. Originally from Chicago, she received her MFA from Brown University where she studied with Paula Vogel.

We’ll be posting responses to this discussion triweekly here on the site. Follow us on Twitter at @ArtofChangeIs to share your own ideas.