What do you think? What do you believe? When were those thoughts and beliefs determined? And how were they determined?
For most of us adults, we reach a point at which we feel confident in our knowledge of how things work and in our beliefs about what is right and wrong or good and bad. And once that happens, we seek settings, friends, and activities that align with our thoughts and beliefs. It’s the safest method for living a relatively calm, stable life in our increasingly tense, divisive society.
Challenging our thoughts and beliefs is often seen as one of the most uncomfortable and unnecessary things an adult can do. But participation in and exposure to new experiences can have beneficial effects. Engaging in art, music, writing, or performing is one of the easiest ways to reap benefits. While children’s brains benefit most from these activities, adults who play music can experience brain improvement too.
But I’m not a scientist. I’m an art museum director. I have not conducted studies on the physical development of the human brain, but I have seen what time with art can do. When you pick up a book you’ve never read, listen to music you’ve never heard before, or enter a gallery filled with art that is new to you, you have a risk-free opportunity to step into a new way of thinking. Too often, readers, listeners, and viewers keep their attention on the surfaces of what they experience. It’s hard to give yourself the time required for a deep exploration of art, but it’s incredibly rewarding. Whether it’s characters that come alive in your imagination, music that fills your body and gets stuck in your head, or art that brings to you entirely new visions of the world, the gentle, quiet, internal feeling of excitement that comes from having your brain take a new journey is unlike anything else.
What does art have to do with diversity? Two important things. First, art can provide a more direct and emotional connection to lived experiences than simply reading historical or biographical information. While our embracing of diversity has also brought with it an awareness of how many different categories of identity can exist within a single person, humans cannot be understood as data points or boxes to check. Literature, music, and art connect us not just to a thing or idea but to the inspiration behind that thing or idea. And second, art represents the best of us. The writer, poet, composer, singer, painter, sculptor, etc., responsible for the artworks you are experiencing, have given everything they have to share their thoughts and beliefs in a way that is most potent for them. Whether the creator of the work checks some of the same demographic boxes that you would or matches none of them, set aside your preconceptions—I know it’s incredibly hard for me to do, so it’s probably at least a little difficult for you—and open yourself to whatever ideas and emotions underlie their work.
Might it change how you think or believe? There’s no way to know unless you try. But, in this increasingly loud, often obnoxious world, I believe nothing is more valuable than time spent with the arts.
By Todd Behrens, Executive Director for Sioux City Art Center