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Robert Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon, 1949

When I was growing up and my sister and I would get particularly rowdy and ridiculous, my mother would admonish us: “What will the neighbors think?”  This quickly devolved into my sister and I responding with loud and exaggerated concern, “Oh no!  The neighbors might think!”  Let’s just say that not everyone on our block was the brightest…

I come from a paranoid people—centuries of pogroms, homelessness, that whole Spanish Inquisition thing and ongoing minority status, crept under our skin and weaved into the gene pool.  The result of ongoing outsider status can be a peculiar mixture of critical thinking, suspicion of the majority and an intense desire to belong.

For all people, human connection and acceptance is key to our well-being.  Fear of judgment and rejection can be strong.  We are social animals and long to be a part of a community.  However, can this need to belong be in conflict with our ability take great risks? To make innovative art?  To think outside of the box?  How do we stay open to abundant creativity and new ideas despite our innate fear of isolation?  In our mass consumer culture the quality of innovation is often measured by popularity in the marketplace.  Yet many a great artist, scientist or thinker spent their lifetimes being unaccepted or even ostracized for ideas that eventually became celebrated or the norm. I wonder what great ideas have become lost along the way because someone was too afraid to make themselves vulnerable to rejection.

Social researcher, Brené Brown, asserts that vulnerability is a key to creativity (if you haven’t had the opportunity to see her speak, I recommend her Houston TED talk). By opening ourselves up, by risking complete failure, we are able to access our deepest strength and live fully.  She states in her book Daring Greatly, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

Those who work in the arts must live with a lot of outside judgment.  Not just from the critics, but every time an artist puts him/herself in front of an audience s/he risks failure and potential humiliation.  Being an artist is a constant balance between summoning the courage and vulnerability to access creativity with the desire for an audience to connect to one’s work.

I would also say that in viewing a work of art, we as audiences must also summon our courage.  In order to have a deep experience when viewing art, we too must be open and vulnerable.  How many times have you seen a contemporary work of art in a museum and heard someone around you making a derogatory comment – is it possible that the audience member is afraid to make themselves vulnerable to a new idea?  Fear of difference can paralyze us and of course, lead to great prejudice and violence.  Fear of difference when viewing a work of art can stifle us as a culture and make us afraid to explore new ways of thinking.  The danger is that performance events become a recycling of the same ideas and safe ways of doing.

Let’s challenge ourselves to let go of judgment: this week read a piece of fiction or poetry in a style that feels new and confusing, see a work of art that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before or go to a performance that’s completely outside of what you would usually go see.  Let’s try to stop judging each other, even for a day.  But above all, let’s do something that makes the neighbors think.  It’s good for them.