What real good does Meryl Streep do?'' This is the question that my 18-year-old daughter asked me upon returning home from dancing in New York. She had been studying with Luigi in preparation for a career on the stage, and having spent three weeks walking around the city she came home to ask this question. ''What good does Meryl Streep do?''
Beth had been struck to the heart by the poverty and despair in New York. What had been advertised as bright lights turned out to be hollow eyes in many faces. I think she was also struck by the fact that she was 18 years old and that her life was before her. What could she do with it? What relevance could her dancing have to the needs of the world?
Beneath her earnest question lay the suspicion that art has nothing to do with action. It doesn't seem to help anybody. You can dance or sing for all you're worth, but the world still lines up for bread.
In the face of such poignant reality, I have no easy answer for Beth's question, but it is a kind of question that many young people are likely to raise. At the very time when they are most optimistic and enthusiastic about their own world, adolescents are also frequently most sympathetic to the plight of others. They see that they themselves have many chances, but others do not. So it is difficult for them to accommodate their artistic enthusiasms and joy in life with their observations of the world around them.
Yet I think it would be a mistake for the young to think that there is no relationship between art and life. In fact, the German poet Rilke thought the unmistakable sign of great art was always that it made you want to change your life. Aristotle also argued for the illumination that art brings to our lives, as the emotions of pity and fear are transformed into a new and deeper understanding.
But perhaps with respect to particular singers, dancers, or actresses the question is more difficult. One can easily see that art forms can structure life , but what can an individual performer do for the world except to divert it for a moment from more serious things? What can a Meryl Streep or a David Threlfall actually do?
And yet it is precisely where individual performance intersects with questions about life that the justification for artistic careers may lie. If it is a serious idea that we should treat others as ends in themselves rather than as means, then isn't this what a deft and true artistic performance normally does? Whereas bad actors are always injecting their own personalities into their roles, distracting the audience and distorting the truth they are asked to portray, doesn't good acting proceed in just the opposite direction? The authenticity with which a Meryl Streep portrays a Sophie or a David Threlfall portrays a Smike (in ''Nicholas Nickleby'') focuses our attention on a magnetic and live personality, taking us away from ourselves. We are given the vivid facts of another human being, and that organizes us at high levels of empathy and concern, just as a singer, totally taken up with her song, can organize the world for a moment. And it is the eagerness and dedication such people bring to their performance which allow us to focus for a moment on the real that is outside us. The world becomes informed and eloquent for us, and our personal desires grow quiet.
For a young person to be totally absorbed in portraying a character, or singing a song, or acquiring some grace of movement can be intrinsically valuable and at the furthest possible remove from selfishness. And in mastering such an art a person can demonstrate to others a special kind of selflessness, inspiring a vivid response from them. If it is true we are not saints and lack that charismatic quality that can by itself change lives, we can nevertheless be active at the edges of that charisma, pursuing our interests as they touch upon the true and the beautiful.
If Meryl Streep can be regarded as a vehicle for true dramatic art, in which the performer loses her own personality in the one portrayed, then my daughter's question is capable of an answer. ''What real good does Meryl Streep do?'' It depends, I gather, on how many times you watch her.