When Social Mores Fail Us, There’s Art

No matter what thing is happening in our lives, joyful or devastating, art has the power to cut right through it. Art gets to the heart of everything. Many professional art critics, historians, and aficionados have offered their perspectives on this—perhaps more eloquently than I will—but I want to share with you just how art functions for me, and in my novels. Because it plays an essential role in our social fabric by influencing our innermost perceptions.

The way I see it, we go through life carrying our own story. Part of it is personally generated by who we are. Its general tone comes from our place and time. Some of it results from events we have experienced. And so much arises from the culture surrounding us—the spoken and unspoken social rules that tell us how to act and speak, what values to guide decisions by, and ways to be that are in accord with others surrounding us. It’s this last layer of personal story that art penetrates particularly well. Because maintaining the relative peace and harmony of following the status quo can be enjoyable (in an evolution-as-social-beings way), but it is all too often boring, suffocating, and even dangerous.

In the story Our Sealed Letters tellsfor example, Annabelle Manning grows up on a Southern plantation surrounded by forcibly deferential enslaved people and under the influence of her father and his extended family, who act and speak abusively to maintain this power imbalance. Yet because of her mother and her family, who live in New York, Annabelle’s conscience knows this situation is fundamentally wrong—however firmly established it is economically and culturally. In the midst of these situational tensions, Annabelle establishes her own childish kind of logic that reconciles these competing values. But as a result, she puts on blinders, falls victim to weaknesses that send her to bed, can’t stand up for what she believes in, mistakes deference for love, and simply assumes someone will always be there to tend to her needs. 

Yet as she becomes an adult, in society and also in her thinking, curiosities about who she is and what she might want in life form openings in all this—cracks for influences to slip through. Those influences are works of art: a poem by Lord Byron, the opera Don Giovanni, a landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt, the impassioned speech of Frederick Douglass, among others. They penetrate her environment, the defenses she has built up against it, and the social mores trying to influence her. They lead Annabelle to perceive and understand her own heart. 

It’s highly likely you’ve experienced this, in the midst of your life’s story. But how does it work?   Paintings, poetry, theater, sculpture, and more, can change how we experience life because they reach the one who perceives it all. By offering us hints of alternative perspectives in ways that play on perception itself, we are invited to adjust. I say “invited” because we must be willing to answer the call—to apply those perspectives to our story, let them intermingle and interplay, so the result is completely unique to you, original to me, and different for us. 

I find this ability to be magical. It’s an alchemy of influences that points to freedom, whether within or without. It has incredible power, it’s true, to alter the course of our life story. I think of a writing client, who shared that the library was her source of safety and exploration as a child. She wrote: “A Muslim girl, first generation to be born in America, and able to read all the books I would never have been able to read in my home country, runs away at eighteen and goes on an epic yet grueling spiritual life journey. Books helped shape me into the leader and woman I am today.” Personally, I find this so moving and inspiring because books sent her on a lifelong journey of discovery that led her to establish herself authentically, in a position to help others. But others sadly see this as dangerous and want to ban the penetrating power of art by banning access to certain works. 

Therefore, I want to encourage you to think of your relationship to art as a dynamic interaction. The art does not have the influencing power—no one can predict how it will land in your heart and mind. We use art, and art finds us, when there is an opening for it. I love writing about this, so I have woven art into my novels, almost as characters, because its influence determines so much about our life stories. So we can determine to live freely, more attuned with who we are because we encountered a work of art that made us pause to think, feel deeply, question, answer, and act. 

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