The Arts Help Us Find Comfort, Peace, and Unity

Posted by Robert Lynch, Dec 30, 2015 0 comments

2015 is almost over, and what a year of successes and changes we've had as a country. The unemployment rate dropped to its lowest level in more than seven years; the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide; a landmark climate change agreement was approved; the U.S. embassy reopened in Cuba after 54 years; and a week ago, the Every Student Succeeds Act passed--a tremendous win for arts education. The arts won a number of other legislative victories too, such as increased federal arts funding and arts-friendly legislation regarding both IRA tax rollovers and visa law along with key successes at the state and local levels.

But I also look back on 2015 with some sadness, for what also stands out is far too many incidences of violence around the world. Communities left broken, scared, uncertain how to carry on with everyday life. But remarkably, after most of these tragedies, stories have emerged of hope, of rebuilding, of unifying and strengthening in ways that seemed unimaginable before. In many ways the arts are helping communities across the world heal.

Last month, the world reeled from an act of unfathomable hatred and cowardice in Paris--the second terror attack this year that got at the very core of the city's rich cultural offerings. Jean Jullien, a French graphic designer, reacted instinctively upon hearing the breaking news and created an Eiffel Tower peace sign drawing and tweeted it, with the caption "Peace for Paris." The world immediately embraced it. The simple image went on to become a symbol of hope and solidarity with the people of France, with thousands of people retweeting, recreating, and reproducing the image across the world. "Peace for Paris" is helping people communicate their loss and need for peace and solidarity.

Powerful symbols also emerge to communicate outrage. After Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, the gesture of raised hands became a symbol of outrage over mistreatment of unarmed black youth. St. Louis-area artists Damon Davis and Basil Kincaid created the Hands Up plywood lawn sculptures of raised hands--evoking the reported stance of Brown just before he was shot--and planted them in the ground at various locations around St. Louis. The sight of these hands emerging from the ground is a powerful statement of emotion. The Black Lives Matter campaign continues to use art and artistic expression to spread the message of justice across the country.

In the wake of tragedy, the creative process has also helped communities identify emotions and promote healing. Following the shooting at Charleston's Mother Emanuel AME Church last summer, President Obama felt compelled to amplify his words by singing a song, the hymn "Amazing Grace," to fully express the depth of his emotion as he delivered the eulogy. An initiative was launched by Hearts Mend Hearts, with a clear mission: to help a grief-stricken community by using the healing properties of art. Structured workshops--hosted at the Charleston County Public Library--were led by arts professionals and designed to help people of all ages process their feelings and express their emotions in a safe environment through the creation and experience of art. Residents of Charleston continue this creative, non-threatening way to deal with trauma. Charleston is a community where my friend, Mayor Joe Riley, the longest serving mayor in America, has employed the arts again and again to bring people together.

The positive effects of the arts have been just as powerful internationally. The 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan left an indelible footprint on the collective consciousness of people worldwide. More than 15,000 people perished; more than 300,000 were displaced. Along with aid workers from around the world, the Juilliard Christian Fellowship brought moving dance and musical performances to the Tohoku region. The Nozomi Projectcreates jewelry out of broken pieces of pottery left in the wake of the tsunami and in turn brings sustainable income and community to women who lost their livelihood. The Liberty Music Project was started to provide children in the disaster area with classical, gospel, and folk music lessons in their schools in the hope that they will look toward a bright future and not live in fear of losing everything again. The arts are bringing hope, community, joy, and openness of expression to a devastated region.

Twenty years ago this past fall, I was in Israel co-hosting a delegation of local and state arts agency leaders. Among the many remarkable things we saw was the coming together through the arts of different peoples and religions. The night I left, while at the Jerusalem airport, we heard that the prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, had been assassinated. We had experienced remarkable places like The Children's Memorial at the Holocaust Museum memorializing tragedy from fifty years earlier. We had witnessed the efforts of Mr. Rabin right then in 1995 helping to heal the wounds of the more recent past. And we have seen the subsequent efforts over the last twenty years to bring people together after Mr. Rabin's death as in the efforts of our own Artist Committee members Peter Yarrow and Pierre Dulaine, working respectively in music and dance today with the children of Israel and Palestine.

The arts help communities affected by tragedy to find comfort and hope through commemoration and remembrance activities. Last April, to observe the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma City University theater students performed an original play--a documentary for the stage--based on interviews with more than 45 members of victims, survivors, local officials, and first responders. The play, "20th Anniversary Oklahoma City Bombing Project," served as a living memorial, and a celebration of the tenacity, recovery, and healing process of Oklahoma City. Each time I revisit the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, especially at twilight, I can feel the power of art as a way to evoke visceral memory of those who have fallen.

The creation of community spaces can provide much-needed sanctuary where recovery and remembrance can happen. The Garden of Reflection 9-11 Memorial in Morrisville, Pennsylvania was constructed to remember and honor loved ones killed on September 11. Designed by architect Liuba Lashchyk, the memorial, inscribed "After Darkness...Light," invites visitors on a journey from the darkness of 9/11 to the light and the luminous symbols of hope, peace, and the celebration of life--a reminder that out of tragedy comes hope. Twin fountains are located at its heart, encircled by glass panels containing the names of every person who died that day. In New York City, the National September 11 Memorial's twin reflecting pools feature the largest manmade waterfalls in North America. Designed by architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the pools sit within the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood. The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the pools. And here in Washington, where from our office windows we watched the smoke rising above the attack on the Pentagon, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial is a daily reminder through art of the 184 lives lost here on that day.

As we embrace with joy and hope a new year celebrated world-wide through art, it is important to remember what was sacrificed to get us here. That too is recalled and honored through art. There are many more stories to tell. Individually they are powerful, but collectively they create an extraordinary human story about recovery. Out of tragedy comes the determination of the human spirit to heal, rebuild, and find peace, and the arts have the power to cultivate hope, to engender and communicate solidarity, and to help transform tragedy into hopeful reminders that beauty and good still exist.

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