Making Sense of the World
Musings on the exhibition Sense Me at Trapholt and how it might make us more aware of the important things — in our own life and in the world.
“Can a greater sensory awareness give us a richer life?”
This question was posed by Karen Grøn, director of Trapholt Museum of Modern Art & Design, when she opened the museum’s new ambitious exhibition Sense Me in September 2019.
Museums everywhere are asked to legitimize themselves these years. Why — the question goes — should we as societies invest in places that some would say are mostly for an elite of art and history buffs? Aren’t our common resources better spent on ensuring good healthcare, safe cities, a cleaner environment and better infrastructure for the common good? Why spend public money on something that is perceived as just ‘nice to have’ when we are facing massive societal challenges with rising populism, inequality and ecological crisis? Are art and museums not merely pleasant pastimes that we can put on hold until we have dealt with the seriously important things in society?
Everywhere, we see the cultural domain ranking low in political debates and in the way we structure our societies. Recently, all mentions of ‘culture’ have been vacuumed from the titles of the new Commissioners’ portfolios in the European Commission. In Denmark, a new social democratic government elected in June has issued a government platform that doesn’t mention culture with one word and which demonstrates no vision at all for the field of cultural politics. On the contrary, their gambit for next year’s state budget proposes to continue the mechanical 2 % cuts on culture that have been going on since 2016. Culture seems to be an area where politicians find savings and which they don’t take seriously as a societal factor, even though — as Karen Grøn ventures in the informative exhibition catalogue — awareness of the social significance of culture has been evident since at least the beginning of the 19th century.*
In the meantime, current research validates that cultural participation makes a tangible difference for citizens and societies, for instance improving mental and physical health, lowering crime rates, encouraging climate friendly behaviour and democratic participation. Pier Luigi Sacco, Professor of Cultural Economics at Libera Università di Lingue e Comunicazione in Milan, convincingly argues that important spill-over effects are produced when people participate actively in culture. Drawing on comprehensive research from multiple fields, Sacco points out the positive ripples on areas such as life expectancy, breaking down social prejudices, and mobilization towards beneficial causes. Obviously, it’s complicated to measure such impacts, but the indications across areas not normally associated with culture are striking:
“By active cultural participation, we mean a situation in which individuals do not limit themselves to absorb passively the cultural stimuli, but are motivated to put their skills at work: Thus, not simply hearing music, but playing; not simply reading texts, but writing, and so on. By doing so, individuals challenge themselves to expand their capacity of expression, to re-negotiate their expectations and beliefs, to reshape their own social identity.
(…) cultural participation is the second predictor of psychological well-being after (presence/absence of) major diseases, and in this respect has a significantly stronger impact than variables such as income, place of residence, age, gender, or occupation.
(…) cultural participation may have an important indirect role in fostering social mobilization and awareness about the social consequences of individual behaviors related to environmentally critical resources.
(…) certain types of cultural projects may produce strong and significant effects in terms of juvenile crime prevention, pro-social vocational orientation, or conflict resolution.” **
Such positive outcomes of an active cultural life have rarely been mentioned, let alone recognized, in the cultural political debate. But interest in the social impact of arts and culture are gaining momentum, capturing the attention of very different actors in the cultural field, from artists to policy makers.
Personal and common senses
Trapholt is making interesting strides to frame and further the transformative qualities inherent in arts and culture. Sense Me explores how contemporary art — with roots back to Rudolph Steiner and synaesthetic art movements in the early 20th century — is striving to make audiences more critically aware of the world around us. Encouraging us to take a stance against the stress and pollution of our minds and surroundings entailed by amok-running capitalism, screenbased consumption of simulacrae and information overload; to ground ourselves in our bodies and become aware that we have an opinion, and a choice, when we recalibrate and use all of our senses to consider our situation anew.
Sense Me is on a mission to make us experience the world in its sensory complexity, thereby encouraging us to consider the “normality” we all move around in with more or less awareness. The endless flow of visual and auditive information passing through our eyes, ears and consiousness on any given day, the relentless noise of our modern cityscapes where true silence is rarely or never found, the constant influence of pollutive substances in the air we breathe, the materials we wear on our skin, the utensils we eat and drink from, the foods and liquids we ingest into our bodies — most of the time without giving it a second thought — does all of this make us less sensory apt than we ought to be? Does it dull our ability to judge and act on the impulses coming from our surroundings?
Many of the works in the exhibition question whether our senses have become weakened and blunt by modern life, and tries to wake up dormant senses like smell, touch and taste. Through heigthening our sensory awareness, the exhibition urges us to consider if we can lead more balanced and conscious lives where we experience greater well-being, clearer notions of our own mental capacities and limits, and become better equipped to act on what our senses tell us — also politically. If, with our sensory consciousness, we can reach a deeper understanding of what perpetual economical growth, overachieving lifestyles and overexploitation of natural resources do to us and the planet, will we be more ready to change our habits?
Art as an instrument?
A recurring theme in the cultural political debate is the fear of instrumentalising art, effectively turning art and culture into vehicles for societal or political agendas, be they ever so sympathetic. To me, it’s imperative to protect the fundamental free realm of artistic expression against politisation or commercialisation. But what we’re seeing more and more today is that artists themselves create works that speak into the major political agendas with ambitions to raise critical awareness in publics and change behaviours. Artists today seem pretty unabashed in addressing the hot topics shaping global political debates.
I recently published a new debate book, A Question of Culture. Debating Cultural Politics***, featuring 42 interviews with prominent profiles on the Danish cultural scene. Here, Olafur Eliasson, one of the artists featured in the exhibition at Trapholt, argues that art has a unique ability to make global political issues more tangible to us.
“Today, there is probably not a single individual over the age of ten who hasn’t somehow been exposed to the concept of climate change. However, there’s quite a gap between first hearing about about it to gaining a physical experience of it. (…) Culture is a language that enables us to talk about topics that can feel rather abstract. One of its foremost characteristics is that it embodies its content (…) Art creates an intimacy where people feel they are being seen or heard (…) It’s like the work listens to you, speaks to you. That’s a rather therapeutic way of seeing art, I know, but all humans have a need to be seen and heard.”
On a similar note, leader of the Danish political party Alternativet Uffe Elbæk says:
“…we’re facing the greatest challenge in the history of our civilization. As a society, we have to solve the challenge of climate change. (…) Here, art can take on new meaning because it’s a language that enables people to understand complex issues with their emotions. For indiviual citizens, it’s incredibly difficult to translate an 800 page report from FN’s climate panel into something they can feel and act on. (…) For too long, we have been used to utilizing natural resources as if they had no bounds. Now, we need a paradigm shift. We need artists who will take on the task of building the bridges it takes for us to be able to integrate that shift.”
This is exactly what Sense Me aspires to do. The exhibition embodies some of big societal issues that everybody talks about today, but many of us find hard to respond to: Climate change, information overload, the pressure on our basic human integrity. Instead of appealing to the intellect, the exhibition makes you feel on your own body the impact of the pollution of our minds and the environment. In this way, it attempts to train our ability to reflect with our senses on the big questions shaping our personal and social reality today. This approach is endorsed by Elizabeth Holstein, a young writer and cultural entrepreneur, in the interview I made with her in A Question of Culture:
“Art fundamentally supports our ability to be human and function in society; to become citizens. It’s hard to fathom why politicians aren’t prioritizing culture and in fact put it at the top of the agenda. The act of looking at art and being creative is in essence Bildung****. They want citizens to engage in society and be educated so why not start looking where those things already grow? (…) Creativity is fundamentally problem-solving. You have some kind of problem and you need to find a solution. The more you let your creativity guide you, the greater your ability to break free from what can feel like a locked situation.”
A paradox in the art world
While Sense Me has received rave reviews, some critics are skeptical towards the notion that experiencing art consciously with all of your senses could produce such spillover effects as asserted by Pier Luigi Sacco, and actually lead to positive behavioural changes — like increased awareness of and action against climate change. Parallel to this, an interesting debate is gaining traction on the cultural scene right now: The art world itself is leaving footprints on global climate when shipping artworks, artists and curators around the planet for special exhibitions, festivals and biennials. At the current Venice Biennale, the artworks that are receiving most attention precisely deal with climate change in highly visceral forms — the Lithuanian pavillion Sun & Sea featuring an artificial beach where sunbathers sing opera about the global ecological crisis being one of the most debated cases.
At the same time, the Biennale brings tens of thousands of culture tourists to Venice by airplane so they can learn in sensory ways about the menacing effects of global climate crisis. A paradox if ever there was one. Is the CO₂ emission connected with sending artworks, artists, curators and audiences in circulation around the globe balanced out by the increased awareness people may gain from their multisensory encounters with art? This debate is spurring on self-awareness in the art world to think and act more locally. Why not concentrate efforts where we actually live and work and try to build greater sensory, cultural and societal awareness there? This is mirrored in the response I got from the Danish DJ collective Den Sorte Skole when I asked them what they think we could do without on the cultural scene today:
“We could do without some of the stuff that claims to be globally relevant culture. We should all try to deviate our attention from the media hype and relate much more to what goes on in our local communities. Very few of us orient ourselves towards the local cultural scene because we are filled up with global monoculture (…) If people would focus on who’s playing at their local club, they might end up having some more authentic experiences.”
Thore Davies, a young curator and cultural entrepreneur also interviewed in my book, is taking action on this agenda, developing local hubs for cultural participation. One of his current initiatives is to help young people create subjective cultural maps of their local habitats. Usually, we place the cultural institutions of our municipalities on official maps — the library, the museum, the concert hall. In this project, Davies asks contributors to map their own body movements and sense-making of their local urban fabric onto an alternative cultural cartography. Much like a heatmap that detects how people actually move around in a given space. Will the official cultural institutions heat up or be left cold on these subjective maps? And if they don’t light up, what can they do to become relevant in the minds of next generation cultural participants? The thirst for authenticity, for sense-making grounded in our own bodily experience, is what Sense Me is trying to awaken in us.
It’s a question of culture
Sense Me not only heightens our awareness of a more multisensory approach to the world we live in, more grounded in our own bodies and local environments. It also bears evidence to the fact that this approach is not news at all. In artistic and scientific circles, it’s been well-known for centuries that art in all its forms enrich our mental development and increase physical wellbeing. That it develops our reflective instinct and critical ability in a world of phoney information and dangerously seductive image flows. That it offers people occasions to come together and meet others in a reality where more and more people feel lonely. That it builds communities around the pleasure and empowerment of using our innate creativity not only to create wonder and beauty, but also to come up with better, more creative solutions to the challenges we are facing in the world today. But such important learnings in the history of humanity seem to remain marginalized or drown in the incessant information stream.
What Trapholt is doing is exactly what I think we need right now: To show that arts and culture make a difference in the world we live in, on a tangible, sensory level. The theme of Sense Me — how we sense the world — is accessible to everyone. It brings the overwhelming questions of current society down to earth, at eye, ear, nose, and touch level where they become relatable to our own reality. The sensibility and awareness offered by art is not a ‘nice to have’ but a basic prerequisite for humans to navigate the chaotic reality of the 21st century. As Karen Grøn says in A Question of Culture:
“In a time where more and more people experience loneliness, I can’t think of anything more useful than art and culture. Culture creates communities. You can experience it together with others, and it can give food for thought and conversation. It can create spaces for personal self-reflection, give perspective to the world we live in and create opportunities for us to meet (…) The cultural world must dare to set political agendas and not be afraid of formulating measurable goals that go beyond the economic. (…) Doesn’t culture equal love rather than hip operations? Must there also be metrics for love? (…) By seeing culture as part of society at large, we will be better equipped to communicate into the political realm.”
Will it make us more aware of our behavioural patterns, maybe even capable of changing them, to experience the world with all of our senses through the prisms of art and design? To actively use our own sensory and creative capacities in shaping our understanding of the world? Research indicates that it’s possible and with the times we live in, I’d say it’s worth giving it a try.
Sense Me, Trapholt Museum of Modern Art & Design, Kolding, Denmark, until 1 June 2020.
All excerpts from A Question of Culture have been translated into English by me and approved by the interviewees.
*The recent exception that proves the rule being Norway whose government has just raised the budget of the Ministry of Culture by 850 million NOK.
**Quoted from Pier Luigi Sacco, Culture 3.0: A new perspective for the EU
2014–2020 structural funds programming, A European Expert Network on Culture paper, April 2011. When quoting Sacco, I left out references to the scientific literature he draws on. Please check the paper for full details.
***In Danish: Et spørgsmål om kultur. Kulturpolitikken til debat, Gads Forlag 2019.
****The German term Bildung is intranslatable to English, packing into a single word the joint meaning of education, formation, and culture.