Rob Riemen: To go back to my great friend Thomas Mann, the Schiele lecture which I quoted in the beginning, at the end of it he said with Schiele art is the educator of mankind. Art is the educator of mankind. You will agree with him.
Nadine Labaki: Definitely. Yes.
Riemen Okay, but explain to us why art is…you know, why is it that you make such a movie?
Labaki: You know, art is an initiator of a lot of change on many levels. First of all art creates or ignites empathy. I think the fact that— You know, it humanizes a problem. I decided in this film to just understand…of course, you hear about this problem on the news. You hear about it from someone. You might live it from closely or you might… The fact that I live in a place where lots of things are not going the way they should. The fact that you know, I encounter children on the street every day of my life. Children begging, children working, children being abused, children not going to school, children hungry, children sleeping on the streets.
And of course when you encounter such injustice, you feel—I personally felt if I was going to stay silent I was collaborating in this crime. I cannot as a human being adapt to the situation. I cannot keep living as if this was not happening in my life. So I just decided to use my tool, which is art, to use it as a magnifying glass and just humanize the problem. Lots of people hear about this. But you hear about it in statistics, in numbers. Art can actually humanize it. It actually can put a face on the struggle.
Art in that way opens the door, invites you in, to just empathize with another human being. To understand what really goes on. And when you start identifying and empathizing, it’s not another human being anymore. It’s also something that concerns you. You don’t look at it as someone else. You just identify with it. And you start seeing the problem from your perspective and maybe you would start thinking what if I was in that situation? How would I react?
Pamela Paul: The idea of great books has come under challenge in large part because it doesn’t represent the great variety and diversity of stories out there. One of the unfortunate consequences is that there’s sort of an almost wholesale replacement of those books that rather than read them and maybe read them more critically, there’s a replacement with more contemporary work that while I think it’s valuable isn’t…you know, it doesn’t mean that the other older books need to be crowded out. And that also some of the more contem— Rather than sort of go back to other cultures and look for classics within those cultures, a lot of the books that are currently being assigned—and I’m talking about at the sort of secondary school level—tend to be very contemporary works that don’t even necessarily represent the best of every culture and I think are more towards making sure that people feel like their experiences are reflected in what they’re reading. If you go back to what you [Labaki] said about the function of art and of literature is to foster empathy, I think that it’s all the more important that we read from traditions outside of our own culture. So there’s something to be commended for that in terms of these new books, but the same could be said for the classics. That you should continue to go back and to—because if it doesn’t reflect the culture, if those books don’t reflect the culture of the current diversity in American schools, then all the more important then to know them and to be able to criticize them or to look at them critically before you just say okay well let’s get rid of it altogether.
Leon Wieseltier: In America now, you can defend the humanities but only on economic grounds. So a theater improves a neighborhood. Or many people who study English become McKinsey consultants. But the fact is that you do it for itself, intrinsically, and you do it for the cultivation of the person and the cultivation of the citizen. Which should be reward enough.
Paul: Well, I think that the idea of educating citizens for the sake of educating them as citizens and enriching them in an interior way has completely disappeared from the education system. And that when educators refer to students, they don’t refer to them as future citizens unless they’re talking about “digital citizens” (which is…a whole other thing), but instead talk about them as future consumers, future workers, and that it’s looked at in that respect, from purely economic terms.
Edoardo Albinati: That’s why I teach at prison, where people coming from different countries… Not only countries but economical conditions. And if I can give you a slight positive hint towards humanism and books and reading and all this stuff, and classics, I can tell you that I started again to believe in literature a lot teaching there, because to these guys coming from around the world, and some of them almost illiterate, others cultivated and learned and—
Riemen: And they’re all in prison.
Albinati: In prison. They’re in prison, and I teach them for instance Dante Alighieri. And it works. And it’s perfectly comprehensible, even if it’s written in Middle Age Italian language. And especially the Inferno. The Inferno obviously for many reasons. They would like to know which circles they’re… [audience laughs] But it’s proof that classics—not only Dante but Homer or ancient Greek erotic poets can be read very very easily and the students liked it. So it means that there is something objective in literature, in art. [It] can be transmitted everywhere, to anybody. And that’s a great strength. This is the proof I mean, the basic proof that we are working on something that deserves to be…not defended, because I don’t like to defend culture. Either culture defends itself…or if not, fuck the culture.
Nexus Institute Symposium 2019, The Magic Mountain Revisited: Cultivating the Human Spirit in Dispirited Times event page