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

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.