What is powerful?

In yesterday’s post, I quipped “art is in the network, not in the nodes.” While walking around yesterday, I started trying to figure out what I meant by that. It’s a cute quip, but what does it mean? I also wanted to tie it into the ideas I presented towards the end of this post, where I say “It’s about the network of ideas. An individual idea isn’t very useful or exciting to me. It’s about how it hooks into a big picture.” Again, the network, not the nodes.

Where to start? Let’s start with the idea of value. Or to put it more bluntly, power. What does it mean to be powerful? In art, we think of a piece as being powerful when it has an effect on us. Generally an emotional effect, but it may have an intellectual impact on us. Picking up from yesterday’s discussion, though, the power is not in the piece itself; it is in the connection between the piece and the viewer. We can all think of pieces of art that have a powerful effect on us, that are disdained by the world at large. The TV show Buffy is a good example – many would not even call it art, but it resonated strongly with me. It may not be powerful to the general audience, but it is to this audience of one. I think this demonstrates that the locus of power is not in the work itself, but in my connection to it.

What do we mean when we say a piece of art is powerful, when we imbue the object itself with that quality? We generally mean that it has a powerful effect on most people that view it. There are always going to be curmudgeons or naysayers who dislike any given work. But the greatest of works are the ones that speak to everyone. They bring people together, by evoking similar reactions in a whole group, demonstrating that no matter what their surface differences, they have the same reaction to this piece. They create an instant community. I think Brahms Requiem is a good example of this. When we performed it soon after 9/11, it brought the whole symphony hall together into a powerful statement of mourning and hope.

How does this definition of power extend to the world of ideas? Are ideas powerful insofar as they help create connections between people? This is an attractive definition. What is the single most powerful idea in the world? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This idea has bound together hundreds of millions of people into a single faith. It has provided the basis for innumerable communities, both local and global.

What are some other powerful ideas in this bridging sense? The idea of the scientific method is one. The world of science extends across nations and continents. Perhaps sports, as I mentioned in that instant community essay. It also explains why it’s so important to me to do my thought development in a blog, in public, garnering feedback. The ideas in and of themselves are interesting, but what I really want is to think of ideas that provide a new viewpoint on the world to myself and others. And I can’t do that in isolation, only in connection with others.

I think the interesting thing here is that we have a definition of powerful as the quality that allows people to connect to each other. Art or ideas do not have an inherent value; they have value in their ability to connect people. Being the social creatures that we are, we place the highest value on things that let us create social bonds among us. I like this idea a lot. It re-orients us to the value of human connection, and indicates that our connections with our friends and family are our most valuable possession. And that is a message that I totally support.

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