The concept of balance is one that permeates our lives. You balance your checkbook. You eat a balanced breakfast. The nation struggles to balance its budget. Media outlets try (and usually fail) to report “fair and balanced” news. Balance is so important to us that we spend the better part of the first year of our lives trying to master it. But the fact remains that, even as adults, we’ve got a terrible track record for keeping things in balance.
Too many things are out of proportion. Wealth distribution in the United States is astonishingly skewed. My generation is the most educated in U.S. history – but only 27% of us are working in a job related to our degrees (and almost 40% of us work a job that doesn’t require a degree at all). In every single U.S. state it is possible to put in a full 40-hour work week on minimum wage and still not make monthly rent. People put hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of their lives into higher education to end up earning just enough at jobs that offer no security. Both personally and nationally, we put so much in, yet receive so little back.
And this is frustrating to all of us who feel the effects of an imbalanced economy, which is then in turn out of balance with both the successes and failures of our educational system. What adds to my aggravation is the fact that I am so passionate about changing things, about doing something to bring this all back to a steady and more sustainable pace…yet my “expertise,” so to speak, seem useless in the face of all that. I have two arts degrees, which I am thankful for and which I intend to use as much as I can in my work. But I also want to help bring about a change that we desperately need, despite the fact that I am not a scientist or an economist or an educator. Instead I’m just an artist (at least I’d like to think so). What can I possibly bring to the table that would really influence the kinds of changes we need to make?
Last year a professor at NYU told us about holding classes in the weeks after September 11, where students expressed that they felt ineffectual by choosing art as a career path, that they should have chosen instead to be doctors or policemen or something that could help people in a tangible way. I think it’s a struggle that most people in the arts deal with. It isn’t that there’s not value to art – there most definitely is. But how can we balance our passion for art and the desire to bring about real, tangible changes in society?
The hope that I have is that artistic/creative thinking and educational changes do not have to be mutually exclusive. No, even better – my hope is that artistically minded people are exactly what our educational system needs right now. The way we have been doing things for the past several generations is no longer working. We’ve got to think outside the box. We’ve got to try something new. Who better to contribute their voices to that cause than artists? Contrary to my fears, I’m not “just” an artist who can only contribute some kind of aesthetic expression of the struggle we’re all experiencing right now. I am also an educated artist, someone who has benefited from our current system and who can also see the flaws in it. And so much of my education at NYU has been about art in society, how the two coexist and influence each other and change each other. We joke that we hate answering the question, “What’s ‘performance studies’?” because the field is so interdisciplinary that it’s hard to nail down just what we’re doing. But that’s a great thing. My arts degrees didn’t just give me the tools I need to create and refine my own art. They’ve given me a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at the world and my place in it, both as a citizen and an artist. They’ve given me perspective and knowledge of both art and academia. Maybe those arts degrees have put me right where I need to be, at the crossroads of art, creativity, education, and activism. Maybe being an artist is the most powerful thing I can be right now. And maybe things aren’t as difficult to balance as I thought.