I got myself into a bit of an intellectual dust-up today with a friend. It’s kind of stupid and a bit precious, but here’s a question:
Can someone truly understand a region of the world and its history if you have never actually lived there?
I can recall watching this fascinating show back in teen years called The Day The Universe Changed (I was a super-nerdy kid, not like now… oh wait a minute…) hosted by this mad-scientist-like character named James Burke. Brilliant man and easily made science and history accessible and even fun. He talked about how during the Middle Ages, particularly during the High Middle Ages in 14th century Northern Europe, the importance of direct personal experiences in understanding the world was one of the preferred methods for the masses to earn knowledge (well, that and the fact illiteracy was rampant and the Church enjoyed the comforts of an educated Church elite that kept them in power). All of this came crashing down to the Black Death and subsequent movements towards reason, science and literacy over the coming centuries, but that’s for another day.
I sometimes wonder if we’re moving back towards this way of thinking in the post-literate age, maybe this time for the better. Personally, given how many misunderstandings and bloodshed we’ve had throughout history due to assumptions about individuals, groups and nationalities we know nothing about, it makes sense to avoid making big assumptions about regions of the world at this point in time. Isn’t that the essence of liberalism? To talk based on meaningful dialogue and debate and to challenge yourself and your own built-in biases?
But even at that, I can only have these discussions with people from other regions of the world and put myself in their shoes to a point. I can only learn so much about another culture if I have never actually been there or lived there. This is one of the positives of globalization; it encourages people to move around and live in different parts of the world. It’s beyond belief arrogant and foolish to assume I’d ever have a real clue about Russia or Burkina Faso if I’ve never actually been there. If I rely only on mediated content, there’s just no bloody way I’d learn anything meaningful.
So this leads into another question. What’s the role of an artist to interpret reality? In theory, good artists take an interpretative idea and change it into a creative one. You take an idea you have a good foundation of and make it beautiful, that’s the idea. That means learning as much as you can about a topic before you even attempt to create some art. Otherwise, it’s either bad stuff or irresponsible material (yes, even today, artists have some degree of responsibility to their craft, yes?).