Thursday, March 7, 2013

Arte como arma / Art as a Weapon

Ladies and gents, I give you my new catchphrase:  "arte como arma," or in English, "art as a weapon".  If you're wondering why it's in Spanish, it's because I first read it in Spanish.  No, unfortunately I can't take credit for it :(

I'm enrolled in a course at my university called "Seville and the Community."  Essentially, it's a class about social and political issues in Spain:  homelessness, poverty, poor education, etc.  This week I gave a fifteen-minute oral presentation on "arte como arma," and in the middle of my powerpoint, realized, "Hey, this isn't just for a grade.  I actually have something interesting to say about this."

Before I begin, what exactly do I mean by art?  Well, everything:  painting, sculpture, drawing, carpentry, fashion, music, dance, poetry, prose…

My basic argument:  art is great for recreation, but it can also be used as a weapon against hardship, whether that hardship is poverty, depression, social exclusion, unemployment, etc.  Of course, it isn't going to do away with these issues:
Art is a spiritual expression, an activity that generates joy, entertainment, and knowledge.  A poem, a song, a play, surely cannot change reality or defeat misery, but it can act as a tool through which people can express their experiences, their stories, and aspire to better lives.  This is what's called social art. - La Gaceta [translated from Spanish]
OK, social art.  Basically, it's a way to cope with suffering:  through self expression.  However, I'm not sure if I completely agree with the above quote.  Is it true that art cannot change reality or defeat misery?

I asked this question during my presentation and it generated a little bit of debate.  Most people argued that art itself cannot change reality, but it can inspire people to change reality.

Well, of course.  If people start munching on oil paintings in an attempt to end hunger, then we have a bigger problem than we thought.

I asked for some examples of art that has changed reality.  Unfortunately, we were a little short in this area, so maybe La Gaceta has a point.  But how about Uncle Tom's Cabin, which changed the United States' view on slavery leading up to the Civil War?

Whether art changes reality or not, it's still a way to lessen the pain of hardship:
Art is a solution.  It's a sign of culture, and culture is what gives comfort in the face of the certainty of chaos and the forcefulness of the horrors that have been occurring for a long time.  Culture is an analgesic, not an anesthetic.  Culture is what provides serenity in the face of disaster. - Laura Fleischer, El arte como herramienta de intervención social [translated from Spanish]
So, culture to cope with disaster.  Sounds about right.  We were able to come up with more examples for this, like:

  • The Golden Age of Hollywood - The Golden Age of Hollywood began in the late 1920s, around the same time as the Great Depression.  Though people struggled to put bread on the table, they didn't often begrudge a trip to the movies.   The escapist films of the 1930s offered comfort to a society in crisis.
  • "A Modest Proposal" - Jonathan Swift's satiric essay deals with poverty and famine in Ireland during the early eighteenth century (the potato famine came later).  He uses grotesque humor to point out society's problems, and if there's any one way to cope with hardship, it's humor.  If you're interested, you can read the whole text here.
  • Guernica - Arguably Pablo Picasso's most famous painting, Guernica came as a result of a bombing during the Spanish Civil War.  It was put on display at the 1937 World's Fair, thereby bringing the War international attention.
  • Slave culture - Slaves in the Americas used song and dance, usually with African or Native American influences, to help cope with the hardships of slavery and preserve their own cultural identity.
Guernica, by Pablo Picasso
But it's not just that art provides a coping mechanism; rather, there are tangible results, believe it or not. A twelve-year national study showed that underprivileged students who are involved in the arts generally have a higher success rates:  they achieve more after high school graduation, they do more volunteer work, and they participate in politics.

So why did I choose this topic?  And now, it's not because, as a writer, I strongly believe in the power of words (though that's true, too).

It's because of Polígono Sur, the neighborhood in which I teach English.  Essentially, Polígono Sur is a chabolismo, or as we would call it, a slum.  As one of the poorest areas in Sevilla, it has a reputation for crime, a reputation that's only augmented by its large gypsy population.

This fence in Polígono Sur is very close to my English class.
But damn, does Polígono Sur have art!

I'm talking flamenco.  Not touristy flamenco, either, with the main goal being to entertain.  No, this isn't some sort of spectacle.  It's intensely personal, an expression of human emotions through music and dance; yet at the same time, it's communal.  It brings people together, and as long as the flamenco lasts, those people are one cohesive group.  They celebrate together, struggle together, survive together.

It's how they cope with poverty.  With drug abuse.  With the stigma associated with their community and their culture, especially if they're gypsies.  By pouring their emotions into flamenco.

If you're interested in seeing flamenco in Polígono Sur, you can check out this documentary.  Even if you don't know a lick of Spanish, you'll be able to see what I'm talking about within the first ten minutes:

Now to wrap up, I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering…These are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love…These are what we stay alive for. - Dead Poet's Society
What do you think?  Can art be used as a weapon against hardship?  Can art change reality?  Can you think of any examples in which art has changed reality?  How about when culture has helped cope with disaster?

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