Lonely no more! The liberating arts as antidote to Vonnegutian Malaise

Dr. Carl Gombert has been a professor of art at Maryville College since 1993. Photo courtesy of Maryville College.
Dr. Carl Gombert has been a professor of art at Maryville College since 1993. Photo courtesy of Maryville College.

The liberal arts are traditionally understood as the arts of freedom, and a liberal arts education is training in the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to function as an engaged citizen in a free society. Thus, I strongly prefer the term “liberating arts,” because it captures the spirit and purpose of the tradition.

But because I see and understand the world in terms of complementary pairs of opposing forces, I immediately think about “freedom to” and “freedom from.” It is easy to think of the liberating arts as a vehicle enabling the freedom to learn, to grow, to make informed and ethical decisions, to grow in wisdom, to become loving persons and so on.

But the liberating arts are equally a vehicle¾a getaway car, perhaps¾for avoiding ignorance, bigotry, superstition, fear, and other undesirable features of the collective human experience such as loneliness.

So, I would like to speculate briefly on the capacity of the liberating arts to provide freedom from loneliness. In his novel Slapstick, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.¾a flawed individual apparently, but a brilliant writer¾identified loneliness as a principal source of social unrest, contemporary alienation and angst and a host of other ills.

He describes an elaborate plan concocted by the last President of the United States to provide every citizen with a huge artificial extended family to counteract the effects of pervasive loneliness. The liberating arts can do this as well for they conquer space and time, and in essence, they introduce me to countless “relatives.”

The painter Robert Brackman once told me that he could talk with the dead; that when he confronted a work by a long dead artist he understood both the technical challenges and the artistic questions being posed, and so on. He could share and compare experience across centuries.

The liberating arts have that power. Literature enables conversation with artists and audiences past and present, and with communities and ideas near and far. Mathematics and science describe and explain the world as it is, as it was, and as it will be. History provides context and allows me to frame today’s political and ethical issues against the background of past experience while at the same time encouraging innovative analyses and solutions.

The study of other languages (including math, music, and the visual arts) widens my circle of friends and relations and provides powerful tools for understanding and explaining both the physical world and complex interior states of mind. The liberating arts encourage, and actually reward, curiosity.

They empower individuals to explore and make sense of the world, and to remain open to new experience and understanding. And full immersion in the tradition protects against isolation and loneliness. Obviously, they cannot protect against any and all loss, nor should they. Grief and sorrow are inevitable and necessary ingredients in the stew of human experience. But the liberating arts tradition offers the best way I know of making them more digestible.

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