What's Universal?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Part of the internet’s magic is that, even if we can’t travel by boat, plane, or train to other places, we can still “get there” via images and even sounds. While it’s clearly not an in-person experience, we can obtain at least a glimpse, for example, of art exhibits or plays to which we simply can’t drive or fly. I try to bring some of them to this blog so that readers living in far-flung cities and towns can come along as I revisit all kinds of art that afford pleasure and/or stimulation. What strikes me about some of them is their universal nature.

Two experiences in the last few months come to mind: "Safe House," a play I recently saw at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, and "On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism," an exhibit I went to in September at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In both instances, what's universal comes through only in what's particular--particular to a historical period, to a geographic region, to a culture, to a family. I find that abstract statistics about a universal issue--such as the enormous number of refugees in the world today--can be transformed into meaning, feeling, and understanding when presented through the story or image of a particular refugee. In the case of "Safe House," it's the account of one free family of color in Kentucky in 1843, the Pedigrews.

"Safe House." Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

"Safe House." Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

Drawing on his own ancestors' history, playwright Keith Josef Adkins offers a gripping and moving tale of the tensions between two brothers who harbor conflicting aspirations. One envisions himself building up a successful shoemaking business in the white community while the other (along with their aunt) risks his family's safety to help fugitive slaves escape on the Underground Railroad not just to the North, but all the way to the Republic of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. Already on probation for previously helping slaves to flee, what do they do next? Adkins' narrative also asks: What does it mean to be free when the majority of the black community is enslaved?

"Safe House," Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

"Safe House," Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by David
Allen. Source: https://auroratheatre.org/

While watching and listening to the people involved in this life-and-death drama, I couldn't help but think of how the clashes between the siblings (or between generations) often exist in families everywhere. I couldn't help but think of the decisions presented to families in Europe during World War II: Do we help someone trying to hide from the Nazis? Do we endanger the lives of our children by sheltering a Jew or a member of the Resistance Movement? Do we surrender the lives of others in order to save our own? Do we express our deepest humanity at any cost to hold true to our values? Is anyone truly free when not everyone is free?

"The Underground Railroad" (1893), by Charles T. Webber. Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"The Underground Railroad" (1893), by Charles T. Webber. Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

I also can't keep from wondering what I would do under similar circumstances. It's comfortable to believe that I would help however I could, that when actually faced with such a dilemma, my most compassionate self would step forth boldly. But would it? Would I feel compelled to first save my own skin and those nearest and dearest to me?

These are not easy questions that the characters confront in "Safe House." And they don't have easy answers, for as the story unfolds, it's clear that the family pays a big price whichever direction it takes. Yet this is how art can play a universal role: by not coloring the world black and white, racially or morally. This is how art can induce us to reflect on what we consider truly important, what we'd be willing to stand up for, sacrifice for. Art can be beautifully and skillfully executed and still have the power to shake us up.

[Next post: "On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism"

Questions and Comments:
How do you understand art's role in expressing universal themes?
What examples from the different arts do you find speak to anyone anywhere?
What do you consider universal in your own art?

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