Making Art for Life's Sake

I was fortunate to be in the audience recently when cellist Yo-Yo Ma gave this year's Nancy Hanks Lecture on Art and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center. If all you do is click on this link and watch the presentation, you will have done yourself -- as well as arts advocacy -- a big favor. Using live performance and video to illustrate his spoken points, Yo-Yo expanded the discussion from "Art for Art's Sake" to "Art for Life's Sake," addressing both the critical argument for the role of the arts in society, and the responsibility of artists to see themselves as world citizens who are as concerned about our greatest global challenges as they are about making art.

Reminding us that "nothing exists in a vacuum," he built upon the growing body of knowledge and research about the importance of and argument for the arts as an integral part of contemporary life. After citing reports that show our society's need for skills enhanced by the arts -- such as collaboration, imagination and listening as well as empathy and humility -- he introduced artistic and human moments that brought those qualities home to his listeners.

Whether it was his Silk Road Ensemble's work with middle school students on "passion-driven learning" or the demonstration of Musicorps musicians working with injured service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Yo-Yo made the powerful point that the experience of making music and the environment in which you make it can be as transformative as the quality of the art itself. This, to me, is the core of the "Art for Life's Sake" ethos.

When we decide to give to nonprofits, or when policymakers are making tough choices about how to spend public resources, we want to feel we are helping to meet the most basic of human needs. Clearly the arts do fulfill this mandate, and the opportunities to transform lives are just waiting to be tapped. No doubt this will be an increasing part of the role artists are expected to play in our society.

I am encouraged that orchestras too are increasingly embracing this perspective as they expand access to their music making beyond the concert hall. The League recently announced grants to 22 orchestras from the Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation to serve people in health care settings or underserved youth in partnership with community agencies and schools.

One of these programs was started by a Pittsburgh Symphony musician after her own treatment for breast cancer nearly 15 years ago. Now she and about 30 colleagues work with music therapists at a children's hospital, a veteran's hospital and other agencies. Knoxville Symphony musicians work with the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where violinist Sean Claire visits the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

In the current issue of Symphony magazine, he recounts one visit: "An infant born to a drug-addicted mother was constantly fussing and crying; the nurses were never able to communicate with him. As I played for him he calmed down. The piece ended and he started getting fussy; I started something else and he calmed down again. You could see the layers of cloudiness falling from his eyes as he found the sound and focused on it. At the end the nurse asked him if he liked it, and he actually responded. It was the first time he had ever responded to a human communication."

Members of the St. Louis Symphony perform monthly in the Infusion Center of St. Louis University's Cancer Center. Patients have begun changing their appointments to the dates of those appearances.

And then there is the Chicago Symphony's Citizen Musician initiative, in which Yo-Yo plays a hands-on role as the orchestra's creative consultant. The program ranges from performances in prisons to pushing for the recently announced integrated arts education plan for the Chicago Public Schools.

For me, one of the most powerful moments of Yo-Yo's presentation came at the end, when he showed the audience how to take an active listening role in the musical experience as he played part of a Bach suite. Helping us to find a personal place in the piece was, in itself, a generous act of citizenship that also enabled us to deepen our imaginations. What better way to make the case for the importance of the arts?

Clearly, Yo-Yo covered a lot of ground in his lecture, and I only had room here to respond to one aspect of "Art for Life's Sake." But I will be thinking about his message for a long time. How fortunate we are that this brilliant creative artist and humanist is also such an articulate advocate.