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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 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’.

This summer in a laneway in the heart of Sydney 116 old birdcages have been strung across the sky for an installation called ‘Forgotten Songs’. And birds sing somewhere nearby.

'Forgotten Songs' 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 the trees were and laid bitumen where there 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.

From ‘Forgotten Songs’ by Michael T. Hill (my partner), Richard Wong, Dave Towey, Richard Major and Fred van Gessell:

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 all summer. It has joined forces with Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. 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 be only 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.

My own observations and the words of scientists, journalists, some politicians, dinner conversations, tell me we’re fucking up the planet, ruining the earth, through greed and short-term thinking. But the images that stick in my mind and move me to act are from Underworld, The Road, ‘Forgotten Songs’. That is the power of art.

I’m interested to know – has any art moved you so deeply you have to reply with action?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

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  1. Good post – you covered an impressive amount of territory, from Tolstoy and Gandhi to the humble Sydney alleyway.

    Perhaps not exactly the answer you’re looking for but certain pieces of literature moved me enough to want to somehow do what that writer was doing through his/her literature – it made me want to evoke in readers the same emotions that it evoked in me. It made me want to write.

    Maybe I’m being ignorant and that’s simply how it works: reader reads, reader makes some conscious decision to write. Either way, I gave no consideration to the logistics of it or to earning money from it or to precedence, not even to it becoming an occupation/lifestyle. It simply made me want to do it.

    It isn’t Gandhi-esque, or a noble endeavour of any other sort – but I have been mystified by that reaction, and evoking that reaction, ever since.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I don’t have the book in front of me but there’s a passage in Underworld where Delillo talks about a lust for words, an urgent desire to know them, understand them, write them. It follows a scene in which a character (a priest from memory) challenges the young protagonist to name the parts of a shoe and then proceeds to do so himself, in great and impressive detail. It is a lesson in naming and interpreting the world and the visceral pleasure that comes from doing it. This was a writer (Delillo) talking to writers (readers)and I found it an inspiring call to action. Both Underworld and The Road take the world head-on, don’t they?

    By the way, the laneway project you mention (Forgotten Songs)is a poignant evocation of the fragile condition of postmodern life. I took a group fo students through and they were very moved by it, as was I. Nice work.

  3. Thanks for your great comments TK and Boris.

    I love your response to reading, TK – that certain pieces of literature moved you to want to do the same, to write and evoke similar emotions in readers. And I’m pretty sure ultimately that’s what Junot Diaz was talking about and so many writers must feel – so moved by something they read that they have to respond in kind and write. Like passing on the baton. Making a dialogue or polyphony down the ages. I like that a lot.

    And wow Boris – I know exactly the bit you mean in ‘Underworld’, which is a testament both to your memory (you recreate it so vividly) and DeLillo’s writing, given it’s an 827-page book but so powerful it’s still alive in my mind. I’ve read it twice since it came out in 1997 and will be reading it again this year. Yes, Underworld and The Road blew me away, as does all McCarthy and a lot of DeLillo.

    And great to hear you also saw Forgotten Songs with your students and all were moved. Wonder what you’re teaching? Writing? Art?

    Can’t resist including a little of the Underworld scene you mention:

    ‘Then I went to my room and threw off my jacket. I wanted to look up words. I took off my boots and wrung out my cap over the washbasin. I wanted to look up words. I wanted to look up velleity and quotidian and memorize the fuckers for all time, spell them, learn them, pronounce them syllable by syllable – vocalize, phonate, utter the sounds, say the words for all they’re worth.

    ‘This is the only way in the world you can escape the things that made you.’

    There’s a lot of truth in that. I like your idea of it as a call to action. Sounds like you answered.

  4. Jane mentions Mandela in prison. It’s interesting how often literature comes up in prison memoirs, especially those written by people who thought they had no chance of escaping.
    For instance, in that brief period when they opened the archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, historians discovered the manuscripts written by Nikolai Bukharin as he awaited execution: a full-length book on philosophy, which was perhaps not unexpected, but also a lyrical novel and a book of poems, both of which have now been published. Even, or perhaps especially, in utterly dire situations, there’s something that only literature can do.
    (Don’t really know why I mention this, except that the trial of Bukharin and the other purges of the thirties have always seemed to me to be almost uniquely evil. Have a look this document, in particular.)

  5. Interesting observation Jeff, that in utterly dire situations there’s something that only literature can do. And perhaps art generally, I wonder. I remember reading somewhere about the people of Moscow trading food vouchers for tickets to the opera or ballet after the Revolution because they were hungrier for food for the soul (or whatever you call the place art reaches) than food for the stomach, but I’ve never been able to find it again so perhaps I only dreamt it.

    Chilling the complexity of Bukharin’s emotional plea, desperate, torn, terrified, his blind loyalty to Stalin (surely that is not genuine although seems to be). His impulse to write – especially his autobiographical novel – reminds me of Primo Levi, who when released from Auschwitz had to tell his story over and over, keep telling it, scribbling it down on scraps of paper. A completely different motivation but similar impulse to tell a story, order a life, record it for all time, as a way of enduring or surviving horror.

    Interesting too that Don Quixote was probably conceived while Cervantes was in prison. Perhaps an apt provenance for what’s considered the first novel of literary modernity.

  6. Thankyou for your post. It made me think about what it takes to move someone into ‘action’. My life and struggles can’t compare to those of Gandhi, Bukharin or even Junot Diaz, but I think there are times when art has moved me to a kind of crisis point, impelling me to act or change direction, or even reshaped the landscape of my life. The work of Gillian Wearing and Cindy Sherman, and the writings of Cixous, Irigaray, Kafka, Sarah Kane and Jeanette Winterson are a few that immediately came to mind.

    And I still remember when I discovered Linda Nochlin’s essay, ‘Why have there no great women artists?’ in uni. It took me in an entirely new direction, and while it may not be considered art, I still have the same electric reaction when I think of some of the lines (‘the fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces…’).

    Recently, the work of Junot Diaz (particularly his collection, Drown), Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, and non-fiction books like Tall man and Killing made me want to try for something else in writing.

  7. Jane this is a wonderful reflection on how art can reach into our hearts, how it can move us, shake us awake and spur us into action.

    I’ve been working with a women’s theatre group where women, from ordinary backgrounds with no previous experience of theatre or acting, come together and act out the stories of their lives. Those stories tell of migration, of violence, of poverty, of struggle. They are all the more powerful because these stories belong to the women and their telling of them is raw and uncensored.

    In literature, the closing paragraph of David Malouf’s ‘Remembering Babylon’ has stayed with me:

    It glows in fullness till the tide is high
    and the light almost but not quite, unbearable,
    as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters
    of the earth ache towards it, and the light
    running in fast now, reaches the edges of the
    shore, just so far in its order, and all the
    muddy margin of the bay is alive, and in a line of
    running fire all the outline of the vast continent
    appears,in touch now with its other life.

    But your post made me think about more than the music and words and art that have moved me, it reminded me that we too often don’t find time to be moved by what we see and hear and feel and touch, to find space to think about what does move us, and what could, if we only let it.

  8. Great comments Jacinda and Trish. I like your word ‘electric’ Jacinda, I think that’s what it’s about. What spurred me to write the post was going to a big exhibition of star artist at the MCA and his work was SO beautiful, but didn’t do that thing for me – electrify me – that would burn it into my being. And then as I wandered home I saw ‘Forgotten Songs’ again and thought – here in this laneway is something that gets me every time, turns me on. You can’t fake it. I also love the list of writers and artists who’ve inspired you. It made me check out Sarah Kane, she looks extraordinary.

    And I love your Malouf quote and especially your closing thought Trish, think it might go to the heart of what I was trying to say. That we so often don’t take time to be moved by art. I feel so strongly that I need to honour in some way art that has deeply moved me. Otherwise we’re all just shouting into the void.

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