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.

Further Reference

Nexus Institute Symposium 2019, The Magic Mountain Revisited: Cultivating the Human Spirit in Dispirited Times event page