The power of art: does it move you?

If, as Duchamp said, art is the interaction between the object of scrutiny and the viewer, then what is our role in that interaction, as viewers? There’s been a lot of talk about our role and rights as creators, especially in the electronic age when the means of creative production and distribution are available to so many more of us. When we’re all creators in search of an audience.

But I’m interested in how we respond and act as that audience. Can art move us so deeply it makes us act? Can art change lives?

Reading Tolstoy changed the life of Mohandas Gandhi. Tolstoy—who in War and Peace calls war ‘the vilest thing in life’—inspired Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to British rule in India and in his honour Gandhi founded the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, South Africa. And a poem from Victorian England by William Ernest Henley—’Invictus‘—scribbled on a scrap of paper sustained Nelson Mandela through his long imprisonment. Its last lines are:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

And books (in a library, that threatened species) were life-saving for writer Junot Diaz. At the 2008 Sydney Writers’ Festival Diaz gave thanks to the librarian who introduced him to ‘the wonder of books and in the process, I would argue, saved my life’.

In a laneway in the heart of Sydney 180 birdcages have been strung across the sky for an installation called ‘Forgotten Songs‘*. And birds sing somewhere nearby.

Except this is a place where no birds sing. The songs are recordings of the birds who once sang here, before we put up buildings where trees had been and laid bitumen where once was earth. Recordings of Eastern Whipbirds, Rockwarblers, Fan-tailed Cockatoos and other birds sing during the day. And at night the Powerful Owl, Southern Boobook, Tawny Frogmouth. ‘Forgotten Songs’ is installed in Angel Place next to the City Recital Hall, where the Brandenburg Choir with its live human song is a regular fixture.

Forgotten Songs, Angel Place, Sydney

Forgotten Songs, Angel Place, Sydney

For me the cumulative effect of empty birdcages filled with shrill, disembodied birdsong in a dingy laneway called Angel Place next to a house of live human music and song is beautiful, poignant and devastating. I have been turning ‘Forgotten Songs’ over in my mind since it was first installed in the summer of 2010. It has joined forces with Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—and now Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. They have moved me to answer them, to acknowledge them in action.

From Underworld by Don DeLillo:

It was reddish brown, flat-topped, monumental, sunset burning in the heights, and Brian thought he was hallucinating an Arizona butte. But it was real and it was man-made, swept by wheeling gulls, and he knew it could only be one thing—the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.

This was the reason for his trip to New York and he was scheduled to meet there with surveyors and engineers in the morning. Three thousand acres of mountained garbage contoured and road-graded with bulldozers pushing waves of refuse onto the active face … It was science fiction and prehistory, garbage arriving twenty-four hours a day, hundreds of workers, vehicles with metal rollers compacting the trash, bucket augers digging vents for methane gas, the gulls diving and crying, a line of snouted trucks sucking in loose litter.

From The Road by Cormac McCarthy:

They listened but they could hear nothing. Still he could see the open country to the east and the air was different. Then they came upon it from a turn in the road and they stopped and stood with the salt wind blowing in their hair where they’d lowered the hoods of their coats to listen. Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the tidal flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.

From The Swan Book by Alexis Wright:

Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.

My own observations, conversations and the words of scientists, activists, journalists, some few politicians and fewer economists (significant because their language currently rules the world), tell me we’re fucking up the planet, ruining the earth, through short-term thinking and greed. But the images that stick in my mind and move me to act are from The Swan Book, Underworld, The Road, ‘Forgotten Songs’. That is the power of art.

I originally posted this in March 2010 at overland.org.au. I’m reblogging it today to add the picture which is now missing from the original—and to remind myself of the power of art and the extreme urgency that we act to stop our species from fucking up the planet that is our home. If we humans share one thing, it is this planet to which we are all, after all, indigenous.

*’Forgotten Songs’ is by Michael Thomas Hill (my partner), Richard Wong, Dave Towey, Richard Major and Fred van Gessell.

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