Let’s call it the cultural commons: public space for meaning and beauty that enables us to learn who we are, envision a livable future, and work together to shape it. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift that is bringing our cultural commons to the center of our awareness: art and culture are being given their true value as the crucible wherein civil society is forged. The capacities that can be best learned through art—social imagination, empathy, improvisation, awareness of cultural citizenship, connectivity, and creativity—are being used to transform our collective story to one of possibility. Consider a single example: since the advent of YouTube, we have become a nation of filmmakers, weaving music, image, and narrative to express our concerns, poke fun at false idols, foreshadow an emergent world more loving and just than the old paradigm. Have we taken in what this really means?
Thomas Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift” to describe the change in scientific consensus that occurs when an accepted idea of the world can no longer account for our experience of it. The moment we looked at the heavens through a telescope, it began to be hard to pretend that the sun and the rest of the universe revolved around Earth. He compared the shift between paradigms to toggling between the two images that form an optical illusion: you probably know that one where a duck’s bill transforms into a rabbit’s ears if you just stare at the image from the right perspective. In a paradigm shift, it isn’t that the world changes in an instant. It’s that suddenly, our perception of the exact same information takes on a new shape. Suddenly, we can see the emergent reality that has been hiding in plain sight.
I’ve been traveling around the U.S. speaking and offering workshops based on my two new books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future and The Wave. Often, I encounter people who are still stuck in believing the old paradigm’s demoralizing orthodoxies. Undergraduates ask me how to keep from getting cynical and demoralized, and my first question is how much mainstream news media they consume each day. Many people have ceded real estate in their minds to the old order’s assertions of its rightness and permanence, leaving them afraid to imagine new possibilities—let alone get their hopes up. Some part of them still longs to change the world, but their idea of success has been reduced to losing a little less than anticipated. Sometimes this self-disempowering way of seeing has become so familiar and natural-seeming, people mistake being demoralized for being “realistic”: the propaganda that tells them to see the duck gets lodged in their minds, and they just can’t bring the rabbit into focus.
But now more than ever we need to see straight through the façade of so-called reality into a new universe of possibilities that we have the power to shape. This means looking at the world through a different kind of telescope, one equipped with what I call a cultural lens. It shows us that the paradigm shift is already well underway. As with an optical illusion, the challenge is just to bring the new picture into focus.
We’ve all seen how our individual lives are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Two individuals facing remarkably similar circumstances craft radically different narratives, and those narratives color their futures. If I lose my job, do I see it as a personal punishment that shames me, exposing my failure? Or do I see it as a common story, affected by larger forces—say, the export of hundreds of thousands of jobs a year—and therefore a personal spur to collective action? Either way, losing my job sucks, but one story sends me into despair, the other into possibility.
As it is for individuals, so it is for groups, communities, and societies. People who feel their own stories haven’t been elicited or received with respect and deep listening aren’t going to be receptive to others’ stories. What collective stories have we crafted to make sense of the polarized economy, or climate change, or racism and white privilege? Whose voices are included? Who’s speaking and who is listening? To underpin lasting change, we need artists and other creators of culture who can elicit and link many different stories into those that create possibility rather than foreclose it. Look at the Center for Digital Storytelling’s All Together Now stories, for instance, bringing generations together to share stories of standing for human and civil rights.
Consider the question of citizenship through a cultural lens. We know what legal citizenship is and how it is contested: some of us want to build a wall at the border, and others want to tear it down. The debate gets reduced to a tennis match of poll numbers, something happening “out there.” But focus instead on “cultural citizenship,” which isn’t about borders and passports, but about a sense of deep belonging, one that can only be discerned by listening deeply to someone’s life-story. In a condition of full cultural citizenship, all of us feel welcome in our own community, organization, country. Our contributions count as much as anyone else’s. Our history is told as a collective tale, with countless heritages, stories, aspirations, and capacities weaving the tapestry that is our cultural commons. Yet look around the United States today: in every community, there are people who may possess voting rights or passports, but whose experiences of exclusion or indifference prevent them feeling the multi-layered sense of belonging that constitutes full cultural citizenship. Gazing through a cultural lens, we see that bringing about cultural citizenship requires surfacing and reshaping the stories we hold about who belongs and how. We see that the many stories streaming out of immigrant communities today are part of the paradigm shift, replacing an old, reductive story grounded in exclusion and prohibition with an expansive new story of inclusion and equality. Take a look at CultureStrike, for instance.
Or consider our commonwealth as taxpayers. When I give talks, I almost always ask people to take in our collective responsibility for the planet’s largest prison population, or for the fact that we are spending nearly three National Endowment for the Arts annual budgets a day, seven days a week, on war. The three questions I always pose are one kind of yardstick for the commons: Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered, as the planet’s biggest punisher or the midwives of a new story?
How we shape our stories shapes our lives. If we cede our power to shape our collective stories to others, the stories designed to keep us powerless will prevail. It’s time to cast aside an old story that chafes like a too-tight suit, in favor of a new story that fosters a culture of possibility wherever we go. This requires us to get very good at telling and listening. We have to cultivate the skills and awareness that underpin imagination and empathy. We have to understand that just as water, food, farmland, and seeds are part of the commons, so it is with culture. The people who make film, theater, visual images, music, dance, and other art works are nourished by widespread awareness of their work’s value in effecting the paradigm shift; and all of us enlarge possibility by understanding our roles as culture-makers, collectively crafting the story that helps the new paradigm to emerge.