I gave a lecture on Monday at NYCAM where the students are a mixture of fine artists, writers and new media artists. This definitely changed the way I prepared the lecture. I found myself more inclined to find universal connecting points between the various disciplines and so I spoke about how story is central to all the arts and the role the arts play in "cultural renewal." As artists and therefore storytellers, we are all engaged in some form of cultural renewal shaped by the way we see the world. Tim Keller - best selling author and authority on J.R.R Tolkien - was giving a lecture about Tolkien during which he talked about how Tolkien's personal worldview influenced the kind of stories he told. Keller prefaced it by defining cultural renewal this way:
"Every artist is doing cultural renewal. Every artist has some theory about what's wrong with things and what would put them right or righter. I mean if you really think that things are just broken and nothing will ever put them right then it's a dark vision but that's your working theory. If you think that things are bad but the world's an illusion then that's your working theory... every artist is trying to move the onlookers, the hearers, in a direction - some more subtly than others - but everyone is doing cultural renewal."
Mike Myers, during his interview on the Actor's Studio, expressed his worldview by stating that he is "obsessed with movies being a transformation of consciousness machine, that that is what you pay the money for: the fantasy that within 90 minutes somebody could have one indelible belief system that seems to give them identity and by the end they put that onto the sacrificial altar and believe in a completely different reality and whether that's done with broad comedy or if it's done with 'high drama' doesn't matter to me."
Tolkien had a theory about art that was integrated with his deepest beliefs, with his own worldview and I think you can see that - not just in Tolkien's work - but in every movie you see or book you read, or album you listen to and so on. I often find that the really good storytellers are articulate about their own working theory of art and they posses a deep understanding and respect for the audience their work touches.
This is what makes James L. Brooks such a great writer; he knows who he is as a storyteller, he understands his audience and how to connect to them and this imbues the way he engages in cultural renewal. The result is that even in simple films like Spanglish he is able to make a connection between the audience and his characters that is so deep because we see our own humanity in them.
So if we are all engaged in cultural renewal then it makes sense to ask ourselves: what is our working theory of art? what is our worldview? and to what degree do we know our audience? The answers can only make us better storytellers.