Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dance and Democracy at the Guggenheim

Last Sunday night we attended a much anticipated event at the Guggenheim Art Museum, part of their Works and Process series, in which seemingly disparate arts are brought together in surprising and often enlightening ways. Sunday, it was a world class ballet dancer and choreographer encountering one of the most acclaimed college teachers of our time.

The choreographer, an incredibly charismatic and fit man of about 40, was Damian Woetzel. The college teacher was Michael Sandel, the political theorist, whose latest book is based on his famous Harvard course about justice, a course that apparently attracts something like 1000 Harvard undergraduates each semester. What Woetzel wanted to do was make links between teaching dance and teaching about justice, links that for him ultimately reveal what it means to live in an democratic society. So the first part of the evening, Mr. Woetzel taught us a simple dance. Despite our awkwardness, we grew just a bit more graceful under his guidance. Then he turned things over to Professor Sandel who facilitated a discussion about some of the ideas that underlie different perspectives on justice. Here, too, we became just a bit more nimble at working our way through some challenging philosophical distinctions. What was the similarity?

Mr. Woetzel thought that in both cases with the right instruction we could grow in roughly equal measure in our ability to dance and to participate constructively in discussion. Professor Sandel, on the other hand, doubted that many of us would ever improve much as dancers, but that as discussants, as participants in a discussion about justice, with practice and the right guidance, we could become very good, and indeed must become very good, if democracy is to thrive.

I wanted to agree with both Woetzel and Sandel. We could get better, maybe even much better, if we continued to practice our dancing, particularly under the guidance of a fine teacher. He also taught us a great deal about dance appreciation, into which I think we also gained some valuable insight. And we needed to get better, as Professor Sandel suggested, and could, if we continued to engage in democratic discussions. But what I thought Sandel missed is that maybe, just maybe, democracy depends on our becoming reasonably good dancers and dance appreciators as much as it does on our growing into proficient discussants. The more we can experience and understand the world of the arts, the more we grow as appreciators and practitioners of creative endeavors, the more we can begin to imagine and perhaps even enact a more participatory and equitable society. As brilliant as Michael Sandel is, I think it was Damian Woetzel who understood this point more deeply and envisioned its implications more boldly.

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