“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” ~ Stella Adler.
The power of the poet is their ability to crystallize and synthesize diverse situations into a few lines that leave a lasting impression. I don’t remember when it was that I learned about a couple of English poets, who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. It may have been in my one year in an English high school. Both were affected by the First World War, and crafted imagery which highlighted the brutality and finality of war. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are their names, for anyone interested. Even though I had not known war, I could be moved by their lines and feel the pain they reflected. There was a term for the mental suffering that war could cause the soldiers on the front lines – shell-shocked. In one verse, Owen describes the sight of a man dying “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
Art can confront us with images of beauty or violence, with emotions both universal and unique. It provides a pathway to understanding, by permitting us to clothe ourselves in the experiences of others. Recently I visited a showing of the street artist Banksy, and was immersed in his images created with a spray can. His art can be appreciated for the creativity and the amazing way the human mind can fill in the blanks. The forms created by such an imprecise tool are sharp enough to conjure up scenes and possibilities. From cheeky rats to children floating away on balloons, his creations are both suggestion and statement. Some of his work is outrageous, designed to shock. A collection of pigeons on a wire staring down an exotic looking bird alone at the end. The pigeons are holding signs saying ‘Migrants not welcome’; ‘Go back to Africa’; ‘Keep off our worms’. The absurdity mimicking a stark reality of how the UK treats migrants. Or a Native American sat holding a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. There is nothing soothing about his art. He holds a mirror on the hypocrisy of our society and we dare not look away. Along with the pain of a boat loaded with migrants who often die at sea, he uses the images of children holding a balloon to let us know ‘There is always hope.’
Photojournalists bravely stare down the ugliness of war and force those of us a world away to imagine the reality. Images can become iconic and cause seismic shifts in public sentiment and outrage. Atrocities in Vietnam and Soweto; courage and defiance in Tiananmen Square; tragedy washed up on shore on a Turkish beach; these iconic snapshots are seared into our memory. But are they art?
Yesterday I listened to an article describing the research which is being done linking the arts to healing. Whether it is music therapy to help a veteran with PTSD, or poetry that can bring about changes in the brain, they are doing studies on the effectiveness of the arts. An opera singer who was used in the research was fascinated to discover that more areas of her brain lit up when she imagined singing than when she was actually singing! Which gives hope to those of us who are better singers in our imagination than out loud! There has also been research which shows that singing in choirs promotes a sense of community and belonging. Learning new songs helps promote cognitive function and memory. A song a day keeps dementia at bay!
This week we have all been bombarded with images of shell-shocked buildings; tanks and trucks rolling slowly through the countryside of Ukraine. But we have also been encouraged by the power of a nation of resisters. Grannies offering sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers, to sprout from their graves. Beautiful scenes of fields of sunflowers, symbolizing hope and optimism while families huddle in tunnels and basements.
When we are faced with scenes of anguish and despair, it is good to hold on to the possibility of hope and the human spirit. If we can pull back to see the big picture, we can see that humanity has the drive to survive and overcome despite all obstacles. And so long as we have artists willing to paint pictures, write poems, sculpt forms and compose music, there is always hope.
This Friday morning, I hope that good will arise out of the evil of war, that the ultimate sacrifice of human life will force a world shift. I hope you have the opportunity to participate in some artistic endeavor that promotes health and wellbeing. And even if you can’t sing, imagine!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!