Permit Us To Doubt: On the Civic Duty of Artists

Megan Gafford is RedLine resident and a multi-disciplinary artist who is deeply concerned with existential questions about life and death, and everything in between. Her latest site-specific titled Hemisphere, will be on view at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) March 7 - April 2. This article was originally posted on Gafford’s blog on on January 31, 2017.

It is two and a half minutes until midnight.  On the stroke of twelve, the world will be broken, and everything will be as it has never been before.  Each year scientists wind the Doomsday Clock, hoping that the sound of its ticking might make us recall the better angels of our nature.  Manhattan Project physicists formed the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and created the clock in 1947 because they “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.”  In 1953 they set the time at two minutes ‘til, after the U.S. tested the first hydrogen bomb; this was the closest the minute hand has ever been to midnight, and today it is the closest since that year.

Retired U.S. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, remembered by colleagues for his great calmness, warned in the first week of 2017 that, “We are starting a new Cold War.  We seem to be sleepwalking into this new nuclear arms race.”  In the 2017 Doomsday Clock Statement, the Bulletin wrote that it,

...has decided to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done— reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days... even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.

Trump’s rise to power is a stress test for US democracy.  The Great American Experiment tries out the idea that people should be free to govern themselves in pursuit of happiness.  It is humanity’s longest-running democratic experiment, and democracies are extraordinary systems – if for no other reason than because they never wage war on other democracies.  This cannot be said for any other kind of society.  In a warming world full of nuclear weapons democracy is obligatory for survival, therefore Americans have a duty, not just to their fellow citizens but to the world, to keep the experiment running.

But how?  In the words of Richard Feynman, one of the Manhattan Project physicists, “If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”  He reflected that:

[Scientists] have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt.  This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason.  This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under.  The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a... trial and error system.  Even then it was clear to socially-minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown.

This idea is what made the American Revolution so revolutionary.  The unknown is such an uncomfortable place to rest that all of human history describes the deadly clashing of ideologies, each equally and incompatibly sure of itself.  Feynman’s advice seems simple – permit us to doubt – but it is an affront to the heuristics of human nature.  Everyone has groaned at the Sisyphean task of trying to change another person’s mind, and decades of research about cognition testify to the tenacity of this deadlock.   At this late hour, certainty is a seductive yet treacherous bedfellow.

Truth atrophies in every kind of dogma, because it threatens established opinions so that people too sure of themselves tend to lash out at the way things really are.  As Trump intimidates the press and offers “alternative facts”, American citizens must question not only his lies but their own misconceptions.  Confronting false certainties from within will be the greater challenge.  This kind of soul-searching demands an appreciation for dissent, which is no small task.  Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University who studies political civility, described the difficulty in a lecture he gave in London just a couple weeks after Trump was elected,

My favorite philosopher is John Stuart Mill, and one of his lines is, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,” and this is what I think we need to understand about ourselves.  Human nature is really unsuited for life in large, multi-ethnic democracies.  We’re a small, tribal-living primate, and somehow we’ve created conditions where we can actually do it pretty well, but we have to always be vigilant that we are, in a way, living above our design constraints.  We need to recognize that the urgent need of the 21st century is to really think through democracy, governance, and morality.

Everyone has a civic duty to become more comfortable with ambiguity.  The success of every democratic experiment depends on it.  Right now, the US is fractured along partisan lines, repeating the tired human tale of ideological discord.  In 2014, the Pew Research Center published results about political polarization from its largest survey on domestic politics to date.  Of particular concern, the center pointed out that most Democrats and Republicans are afraid of the other party.

This polarization antagonizes the pursuit of knowledge.  If people are too afraid or angry to consider ideas they loathe, then the healthy debate necessary for democracy deteriorates.  Finding value in dissent enables people to discover better solutions to complex problems.  Opposing perspectives can strengthen each other like interlocking reeds woven into a basket, the perpendicular fibers coming together to bear heavy loads that would snap unwound material.  And herein lies a clarion call for artists:

Creation takes place in the unknown.  Anything new, by its nature of being a thing unprecedented, comes from previously unexplored territory.  Even if the new thing is familiar knowledge updated, it is invariably discovered by an explorer who pushed past former limits.  Artists become comfortable with ambiguity so that they can create.  In turn, their creations may entice others to enjoy uncertainty.

Contemporary luminary Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Field Guide for Getting Lost that,

It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from...  Scientists, too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ – the boundary of the unknown.”  But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.

The civic duty of artists is to get people out into the dark sea.  Like a parent coaxing a child into the deep end of a pool, artwork can extend a sure and safe guiding hand.  Such support is invaluable kindness at a historic moment when humanity must master its nature before time runs out.  Art can demonstrate that the unknown holds hope as well as anxiety, so that every trembling heart that gazes into its haze peers at new possibilities.  In this way, artists are bulwarks of democracy.