Author: Erik Elmgren

Stand In The Gap

People walking on the tracks toward a streetcar in Memphis, TN, (Photo by Joshua J. Cotten / Unsplash)

In late October I had a what I thought would be a passing conversation with a friend that ended up affecting me quite profoundly. He described to me how he visited his local convenience store, one he visits often, and he saw several heavily armed protestors outside. While normally he felt at peace when stopping at this store, this time he felt uneasy. In describing that moment, he said that he wasn’t scared for his safety or fearful of the rhetoric. What scared him most, he said, was that he was looking at his home which he no longer recognized.

That sentiment stuck with me all through the election week and in the months since. While after that week I have occasionally felt flashes of recognition for a society I remember from my youth, for the most part, I am still looking at a society and a set of communities that I don’t totally recognize anymore. I am troubled by the rampant disregard for the truth, lack of courageous leadership, and the attacks on the fundamental democratic processes of our country.

In 2016, the day after the election, I wrote a long response that I was planning on sharing on social media. I ended up not publishing it and it has since been lost to the internet or a hard drive somewhere. I don’t remember specifically what it said, but I vividly remember feeling lost while I was writing; I didn’t know why I was writing or even what I wanted to say, only that I had to get something on paper.

Looking back, I think I felt the instinct to write a response because I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education. At that time and for the next couple of years after, the most common question I would ask myself was something along the lines of “Why does all of the work I’m putting into my independent practice, classes, rehearsals, and performances matter?”

I was having a difficult time reconciling my artistic practice and endeavors with a world that no longer seemed to share the values I was taught to believe in my youth: values such as trust, working together, and community. I had become untethered from an artistic practice that felt relevant and while I initially wrote that response in 2016 to share, I realize now I wrote it for me. I was looking for a new path.

Fast forward to the day after the 2020 election, and I was asked to give a talk at my alma mater: the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. I was asked if I would be willing to talk about my doctoral research into creative placemaking and community-engaged music making. The timing of this request did not escape me as it made me think about my path to this research, which started with my soul searching in 2016. This time when I examined my own practice in the context of our society, I found an answer to why my artistic activities matter. That meaning came in the form of another question to which I can tether myself and from which I can perhaps find a bit more understanding. While in response to the events of the months following the election, my feelings have continued to vacillate between confusion, disbelief, and anger, I have not felt as lost during this time as I did four years ago thanks to this guiding question.

That question is: “What is the role of artists in our communities?”

To answer that question, we have to start by looking at our communities. In recent decades in the United States, we have become more divided culturally and ideologically than ever before. We have geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups. To put it another way, most Americans now live near, work amongst, and interact with only other people who think exactly like them. We have sorted ourselves into communities and social groups with other people who affirm our own beliefs.

In his book, written in 2009, called The Big Sort, Bill Bishop says this, which has only become more pronounced in the years since: “We all live with the results (of this sorting), balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies; but bitter choices between ways of life.”

I think it’s important to note at this point that elections in the US have always been bitter choices between ways of life, especially for those with less privilege based on our societal structures. Nowhere is this division more evident than in the history of racism in our country. The country was founded on principles of division and racial superiority/inferiority that we are still trying to overcome to this day. Yet the change referenced in the above quote still resonates strongly with me because I believe those of us with more privilege, myself included, have become more aware of this division and its far-reaching effects within our society and, more importantly, are committed to addressing it head on.

We would expect that alongside the sorting we have done in American society, we would feel a greater sense of belonging in our communities and to the people around us, but that isn’t the case. In fact, levels of reported loneliness in the United States have gone up. In 1980, around 20% of the country reported feeling lonely, while in 2017 that number had more than doubled to over 40%. Human beings are social creatures; we are hard-wired for connection with each other. We need it to survive. In fact, loneliness is just as deadly to our health, if not more so, than smoking or excessive drinking. One study entitled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality by Julianne Hold-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton estimates that loneliness increases our risk of dying young by nearly 45%.

However, this sorting has gone beyond polarized politics and loneliness, and over the past two months we have witnessed the depth of our disregard for the truth in favor of viewpoints that fit our own perspective and attacks on the fundamental democratic processes our country is based on, culminating in the stunning acts of violence committed at the US Capitol on January 6. I’ve noticed a trend where we find that it’s easier for us to hate the “other side” rather than confront our own pain and loneliness head on. We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.

  • I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education.

    Erik Elmgren
  • We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.

    Erik Elmgren
  • Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry.

    Erik Elmgren
  • We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process.

    Erik Elmgren
  • We can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own.

    Erik Elmgren

Noted author, professor, and social worker Brené Brown states that “Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books.” An example from our own country’s history is the use of minstrel shows to degrade the identity and artistic practices of Black Americans. This manipulation of language and art can be used to create an enemy image and a sense of moral exclusion that allows us to treat someone else as less than human.

This instinct to dehumanize a group of people based on their identity and inflict harm on them because we don’t agree in order to compensate for our own pain is what strikes me as being most antithetical to the society I thought I belonged to. This didn’t just change over the past four years. It has been slowly developing over time and is destined to continue unless we confront our pain and our fear head on.

This is where artists come in. In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says the following about music and art, “Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope … Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared … The magic of music is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.”

Just as human beings are hard-wired for connection, we are also biologically programmed to respond to sound and music. The human brain is conditioned to align itself with the visual and aural rhythms of the world around it through a process called entrainment. Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry. Think of the ways we use sound in the medical field to break up cataracts, treat tendonitis, conduct ultrasounds, or even fight cancer. Music can be a vehicle to create a space for authentic connection and relationships between people. It can be part of the antidote for the loneliness we feel. Just as art can be used in the process of dehumanization, it is essential to the process of rehumanizing our society.

If we want the art we make to heal our community’s loneliness and pain and bring us back together again, then it has to be about more than creating a pristine product to be consumed. We need to recognize art’s place as part of the fabric of our society, an essential piece of our culture, and a means for enabling authentic connection between people. Artmaking is a representation of the human condition. We artists, similar to many other disciplines in this day in age, need to take a hard look at our priorities and recognize that the historical traditions of our art form are just traditions which can be molded to address new challenges; they are not immutable laws.

Every element of our creative process is a lever that we can adjust to place connection and relationship-building at the center of artistic experiences. These levers can include elements such as behavior expectations for performers and participants, choice of venue, availability of food and drink, choice of repertoire, and so much more. I use the term “participant” here instead of “audience” intentionally, because the term audience implies passive consumption not active engagement in the artistic experience. If our goal is building relationships and understanding, then every participant must invest themselves fully in a personal experience with the music. This active engagement on behalf of participants demonstrates, as Eric Booth states so eloquently in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, that “art lives in an individual’s capacity to engage in that fundamental act of creativity – expanding the sense of the possible.” Making authentic connection the central goal of our artistic endeavors unlocks the possibility for our art to begin the work of rehumanizing our society. We do this by prioritizing understanding and empathy in our relationships with each other and respecting every person’s dignity as a member of the human race.

Just because things have been done one way and are easy to keep doing that way, does not mean it works every time. We will find more connection by exploring a different means of performing, teaching, and communicating and we must bring our communities into the creative process of designing these experiences. One example of these new means could be co-creating new works of music with direct input from community members so it tells their stories. We can also lean into providing opportunities for two-way communication between artists and participants as a part of every performance through events such as question-and-answer sessions and pre- and post-concert conversations and interactions between performers and participants. We critically must also embrace equity and inclusion so that the stories we share in our art belong to all people. We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process and expect intentional participation, even if that means dissent.

We have to make a priority of creating trust, both in our own practice as artists and between us and those who participate in our art. Creating that trust means listening louder than we play and stepping into a brave and vulnerable space where we engage with people whose beliefs we may feel stand against our own truth. It takes a special kind of courage and craft to use our art to face those beliefs and say, “Tell me more; help me understand your pain so we can work through it together.”

When we tell our story, share our own pain, and listen to other people’s stories in artistic experiences, we create the opportunity for rehumanization. We find wholeness and meaning as human beings through our relationships with each other and we can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own. Rehumanization is not just about finding what we have in common but also about seeking to understand and empathize with what we each hold as most important or sacred, which can be different for each person.

When I go back to that place of questioning four years ago, I realize now what I was looking for was a role for artists to play. In a world we increasingly don’t recognize, one where we pass off our own pain and loneliness by hating and dehumanizing someone else, artists are called to be healers, transformers, and restorers. We have a responsibility to rehumanize each other through our work and remind our communities of what we all share. As artists we are called to stand in the gap of social, cultural, and ideological differences and create experiences that reaffirm our connection to our shared humanity.

I won’t pretend it will be easy. It will be scary and vulnerable, but vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is the lifespring from which our creativity and compassion rise. It’s our courage to show up, be seen, and see other people without the safety of our ideological and artistic safety nets. Being vulnerable is a fundamental part of our humanity.

We, artists of all backgrounds and training, are called to stand in the gap. I hope to see some of you there.