I was home schooling my 5-year-old daughter almost two weeks into our Covid-19-induced lockdown when our pug, Doug, suddenly began chasing his tail. “He’s bonkers,” I said.
“What does bonkers mean?” my daughter asked without looking up from her coloring. “Mad,” I said. “Mad,” she repeated to the half-finished mermaid in front of her.
Then she asked: “What does mad mean?” “Mad means you don’t make sense to anyone but yourself,” I replied. I had hurried past the word’s countless implications in the grown-up world, but she seemed to understand how it applied to our pug, locked in his own paranoid tail-chasing.
In coming to that simple, but very complicated, understanding with my daughter, I realized just how important a shared sense of meaning is in our brave new world of social distancing and self-isolation. Communication and comprehension are as critical to the delicate social fabric that holds us together as facts and research are to scientific investigation and advancement. And art, in turn, is a social investigation, with the results contributing to the advancement of society. It is one of the key ways we work out, as a group, what makes sense to us and how best to communicate that awareness.
That act of building a shared understanding is what attracts me to a particular role or story, or the work of one director over another. Work with themes and stories beyond my ken is vital to my developing any deeper understanding, appreciation or acceptance of the interwoven global culture that all art comes from.
Recently, for example, I played the conservative icon and staunch anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly in the FX series “Mrs. America.” On first encounter, Schlafly and I are, let’s say, two guests you wouldn’t invite to the same dinner party. But that was precisely why I was attracted to the role. I was drawn to investigate, illuminate, make sense of and hopefully understand the apparent gap between us.
Simply put, there seems to exist a deep divide between Schlafly and me, between “staying at home” and “making your way in the world.” Between, from one perspective, obedience and adventure. Or, seen differently, between the demands of faith and the indulgence of the self.
But that divide is an illusion. A rhetorical tool. A simplified antagonism that shattered a generation. What I found in the show is that its women — Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan — although sometimes on opposing sides, are bound together in a complex battle charged with conflicting emotions and desires. Those emotions drive them in similar ways, and subsequently tear them all to pieces. At first, the challenges they have embraced are oversimplified by others. The charged feelings born of that oversimplification are then exaggerated and politicized along partisan lines, separating the women initially from each other, and eventually from their husbands, sons, lovers and friends. When expediently embraced and cynically championed, such exaggerated divisions can quickly fracture society, splinter communities and ultimately disintegrate relationships.
The world today is similarly split, but we have more opportunities to create a unified social understanding rather than segregating ourselves based on misinterpretations and political disagreements. Informed by science and attention to the facts, the coronavirus emergency has forced us to make sacrifices as a group, for the common good. Inside those sacrifices are real pain, real loss and real loneliness. When we venture into a social or public space, we have to imagine new ways of being together that incorporate the silence and the stillness that has been imposed on us.
The virus is here to stay; we will have to learn to live with a mutating, evolving, shifting threat. We are being asked to live with doubt, uncertainty and the unknown. But when life begins to return to normal, certain spaces will help us overcome that fear. They are art galleries, theaters, cinemas, places of worship — those hybrid public/private spaces housing millions of potential connections among strangers, millions of ways to communicate.
Seemingly vast divides — whether political or viral — can leave us frightened and paranoid, more likely to draw back than to try to bridge them. But art, in its ability to cross social, partisan and even temporal gaps can help foster a shared sense of understanding. It can bring us together physically and emotionally. And it can teach us about one another, inspiring empathy rather than anger. Art matters because it lets us engage with our complex social fabric, allowing us to cross divides and work toward a safer and more meaningful existence together.
Cate Blanchett is a producer and Academy Award-winning actor.