Storytelling is important, in all times and all places. Storytelling, like all art, helps us know what it’s like to be human, including:
- What we have been in the past;
- What we are like now;
- What we are capable of becoming in the future.
Art does this in myriad ways, from van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers to great novels about imagined worlds. The art of storytelling does this through both informal and formal exchanges, from folktales told around a campfire, to personal experiences shared in a diner, to concert storytelling performances on large stages.
The Experience Factor
Is it any secret that the pace of our society is accellerating? And that the more we work and the more we consume, the less satisfied we are on the deepest levels?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy not having to worry about the basics like food and shelter. I also love the fine things in life. I like my tools, including computers; I am very glad they exist.
Yet I also believe in the wise words of the Jewish compendium of writings known as the Talmud:
“Who is weathly? The one who is happy with his portion.”
In a society based largely on consumption, status, and the profit-motive, artists help shine a light on the quality of human experience.
Art Is Dangerous
Because all honest art helps us know who we are as humans, art is important to societies.
Without accurate knowledge of human experience, human nature and human potential, no society can make intelligent decisions about how to use its resources.
At the same time, any government or system dependent on deception or injustice fears the truth about humanity and our experiences – and therefore fears art.
If you don’t believe this, consider how often a new dictator moves immediately to control art. Consider why Franco’s forces killed the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca even before their full military victory in Spain, or why songwriter Victor Jara was assasinated – and the masters of his recordings burned – soon after a military junta overthrew the elected Chilean president in 1973.
Controlling Art in a Free Society
In our society, we control art not with guns or a Soviet-style bureaucracy, but, in part, with the star system. The star system elevates a few artists to “star” and even “super star” status. Because there is a limited supply of such stars, it’s possible to profit from them by creating a monopoly.
A recording company, for example, can control the supply and distribution of the star musician’s work. And, because the star is now dependent on the company, the company can also partly control the star.
Incidentally, the extravagant promotion of a relatively few artists’ work, in itself, often discourages other artists. (“If you had talent, you’d be rich.”) Still others are kept from seeking their own truth by their desire to “make it big” (that is, by pursuing fame rather than the truth of their own vision).
This is not to disparage the work of famous artists. Often they are magnificent writers, singers, painters, etc. Yet there are many non-star artists whose work is also worthy of being more widely shared, but is filtered out by a system that requires mass popularity for mass profits.
Such filtering affects all artists, but some artforms, including in-person storytelling, are particularly ill-suited to mass consumption. The for-profit organizations that dominate our society are indifferent to such artforms. As a result, performance storytelling operates only along the fringes of society, where resources are in shorter supply.
Sadly, all this works to encourage artists to compete against each other, fighting over the crumbs available to us as non-stars. Our natural gratitude for each other (as companions on the path of art) can be replaced by carping and jealousy. This further distracts us from our true possibilities—and our importance to each other and to society.
Signs of Hope
In spite of the difficulties currently faced by artists in general and storytellers in particular, I am excited by hopeful developments in recent years. We see, for example, a new appreciation of people telling their own stories, as evidenced in the U.S. by the rise of The Moth, of story slams, and of organized story-collection projects like StoryCorps.
The internet is another source of hope. To be sure, live, two-way storytelling is not yet taking place in significant amounts on the internet. But the strangle-hold of mass publishers over the availability of art is being weakened. It is increasingly easy to create and post audio recordings, videos, books, photographs and more – and it is increasingly easy for others to access and pay for such art.
Further, artists can now easily connect with each other via the web. We can share our work with each other. We can share our experiences, even when separated by oceans.
We can also share how-to information about our artforms, information that would never have found its way into the more limited pre-internet channels of books, broadcast, and recordings.
Thankful for Being A Storyteller Now
In other words, it’s a good time to be a storyteller. No matter how isolated we are locally, if we have access to an internet connection we have a world community at our fingertips. And we have access to information about our art.
In this case, information is power. It gives us the power to be inspired by each other to create our unique styles, to understand the inner workings of our art, and to share what we have learned widely and easily.
It’s a great time to be a storyteller, not because rivers of money are flowing to us or because we are prominent in society, but because it’s a great time to become the storyteller you are capable of being – and therefore to help nudge society ever closer to what it, too, is capable of becoming.
For all this opportunity, I give thanks – and a promise to re-dedicate my efforts.