How Art Offers Refuge From -- and a Reframing of -- Unrest
AP Photo/Barbara Woike
How Art Offers Refuge From -- and a Reframing of -- Unrest
AP Photo/Barbara Woike
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My father was a psychiatrist. Some also used to refer to him as a “Renaissance man” since he taught philosophy and was a trained pianist. He was also a wonderful family man. Today he has advanced Alzheimer’s, so he hasn’t experienced the loneliness of the COVID pandemic, the grief of the racial justice protests, and most recently the horrifying storming of the U.S. Capitol. Nevertheless, over the past year, I have often found myself asking, “What would Dad say?” 

The question came to mind as I considered how we are talking about these deeply troubling events not just among ourselves but also with our children. There is a great deal to feel sad about – the political rancor and coarseness that has now devolved into violence, increased distrust in our institutions, and civil unrest. But there is also much to be contextualized. And I suspect our children, most of all, would benefit from less talk about “processing” what they are seeing and feeling and more talk about the beauty – and the fragility – of the world around them.  

If my father were cognizant today, I’m sure he would have spent much of this past year as all of us did: glued to the news. But I imagine he would have balanced his concern and heartbreak for the nation by playing the piano. That’s because, for my father, the piano was a refuge – a connection to love through the great classics of the American Songbook; to our culture and history (he spoke often about jazz being America’s only true art form); and even to math as he worked out sophisticated chord progressions -- as if they were equations -- in his head.  

So why, during a dark period such as this, don’t we take less time wallowing and more time considering the beauty that exists all around us in art, music, and nature? When I heard that my daughters’ art and music classes were canceled last week so they could spend time managing their emotions regarding the violence at the Capitol, it struck me as an enormous lost opportunity. Instead, this could have been the perfect moment to engage students in the arts, which not only can be a safe haven during an unsettling period, but also provide an opportunity to consider how the arts help us express a range of feelings, values, contradictions, and politics.  

A perfect place to start would have been by introducing young people to the Hudson River School, a group of mid-19th-century American artists who produced breathtaking landscape paintings.  Without a long history to reflect on, these masterpieces were a chance to glorify the natural beauty of our young country and promote a sense of national pride. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, Jasper Francis Cropsey, among others, captured the beauty and foreboding of their surroundings and expressed both the contrast of our desire to explore and discover with our ability to coexist peacefully with nature. Perhaps most of all, these artists understood how the wilderness could serve as a moral lesson for the country – an opportunity to express our fragility while reinforcing ideas of antiquity, virtue, and spirituality during a period of great uncertainty.  

Last week left us all feeling that our society might be crumbling – quite literally – as we watched the windows of the Capitol, designed and derived from Greek and Roman ideals, smashed. But this is just the time when reflecting on our nation’s artistic culture might be most important, especially for our children. The Hudson River School – housed largely at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, just a mile from the Capitol – helps us to recognize our tendency toward corruption, to acknowledge the gift of liberty, and our ability to help create a stronger nation. 

Of course, the Hudson River School is just one example of how the arts can be both a refuge from confusion and sadness as well as a way to think about order and integrity.  Just as those painters juxtaposed lightness with darkness, we might push ourselves – and our children – to think about how disorder and tragedy can coexist with beauty and justice. And how we might do better at balancing the two.   

If I could speak with my dad today, I suspect he would share these views. Let’s put an end to the constant grieving and refocus instead on the enormous opportunity we have to advance a future of compassion, liberty, and virtue. 

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior director at the White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. She has three children and plans to visit the Hudson River Valley this summer. 

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