Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Power of Art

This past week has been so terrible that sometimes I wonder whether thinking about what books to read or write or talking about how to become a better artist is shallow and pointless and meaningless.

I studied law and public policy at university, and I care deeply about these topics. But at the same time I find them depressing and disheartening. Not that I have run away from such topics, or don’t read about them anymore - in fact the book I am revising right now is about the ban on cluster munitions, and full of depressing statistics about victims and landmines and the death of innocent people going about their everyday life. I am writing this book in the hope that I can spread even a small amount of awareness about the landmark ban on these weapons, and encourage countries who haven’t signed it to adopt the convention.

However, I am under no illusions that this is a niche topic. Not too many people are interested in cluster munitions. I know thats obvious, but it only became crystal clear to me when I told people what I was working on and noted their reaction - eyes glazed, polite smile, and crab-like scuttle towards the nearest exit. This isn’t the most scintillating topic to most people.

Not the case about the events of this week and generally the last few months. Most people have an opinion about gun control (or the lack thereof) and terrorism. Most people have the same opinions as me actually, in that most people don’t approve of the murder of innocent people, no matter who they are. Which means that they would be interested in cluster munitions too - if they knew that in many countries, for instance during the Vietnam War, 30% or almost one-third of the millions of these bombs that were dropped into the Mekong region, didn’t detonate on impact, instead remaining for decades just waiting for an unsuspecting child or villager to come across, and get injured or killed.

Don’t worry, this entire post isn’t about cluster munitions. In fact, I hadn’t planned to mention them at all, but then I realized it was a perfect metaphor for what I really wanted to talk about.

The importance of story.

The power of art.

As I said, I worried that maybe I care too much about superficial things, like how many people read my books, and how many words I have managed to write. When far worse things are happening around the world. And then I realized - that the way people are wired, it is hard for us to care about all the terrible things that are happening all at once. Or to understand the impact of every bad thing that happens - every time a bomb goes off killing 100s in (fill in the blank here) or gunfire is directed at (kids, people on the street, in a cafe, in a theater). Or to comprehend what we need to do to stop these terrible things from happening. People complain that the Western media is selective - the deaths of two Europeans or five Americans are highlighted, but the hundreds of thousands of Africans that die of disease or poverty, or the Asian children that suffer from child labor and sweatshops and myriad other problems go unnoticed. While that may be slightly true, I think there is room enough for us to care about all the people who suffer - regardless of where they come from.

But the reality is that we don’t. Some tragedies get more press and eyeballs and attention than others. And that matters because that determines where the attention for solutions go to as well. And this is even more stark for me, as I work on this book, because one of the reasons that the issue of cluster munitions, and landmines before it, got enough attention for the weapons to be banned, was that articles were written about them in the media, and powerful politicians and influential civil society organizations banded together to create change.

And it all started with something simple.

They started with a story.

And this is the point of this post. What can we as writers and authors and artists of all stripes do in the face of such horror and tragedy? We can create art. We can create stories.

They are powerful enough to heal when we are hurting. We can escape into a movie or a book, and forget our problems, forget the pain for a while. When I struggled with periods of loneliness and depression in college, I often resorted to a frothy chic-lit book to escape my issues for the evening - my favorite author and bar of chocolate. While that contributed to my waistline, it also helped me get through that period and to the other side.

So stories can make us feel better, make us feel happier.

When we go to the museum and see paintings full of emotion, depth, mastery of technique and color, we feel the awe, the beauty of not just the talent of the artist, but of the human race. We feel connected to something bigger than us, something eternal, something primal. And that is the power of art.

But that is not all. I want to go back to what I said in the beginning - what can we as writers or authors do? We actually have a lot more power than we know. And as Uncle Ben said to Spiderman - with great power comes great responsibility. As writers we have the power to get the attention of people, to get their emotions involved in the world that we create, to make them see something from a completely different point of view than before.

I read somewhere that Princess Diana’s involvement with the landmine ban campaign was the PR equivalent of a $2million campaign. Why was that? I was quite young then and don’t remember the campaign, but I bet it was because she helped shape a specific story - look at these children who lost limbs, these people whose family members died because of a landmine. Can’t we stop this? The campaign focused on the people who were affected, telling a story that was picked up by news media all over the world, and contributing to a landmark treaty banning anti-personnel mines.

I don’t have any ideas about how to stop the violence. I don’t know what really goes on in the head of someone who decides to deliberately take the life of another, especially the life of someone they don’t know, have never met. Someone who hasn’t harmed them in any way. But I do know that stories are powerful. We may not be running countries and deciding public policy. But we can affect change in subtle but powerful ways. In the stories we choose to tell. In the way we frame the issues.

I know that if I tell someone that I wrote a book about how a particular weapon was banned, they fall asleep talking to me. But what if I told them instead that my book was about how people were needlessly dying from a war that ended decades earlier?  Or that it was a classic David v Goliath story - how a small group of countries and some passionate individuals managed to change defense policy and destroy millions of weapons that were a core part of the arsenal of the biggest military powers in the world?

What if we changed the stories told about climate change? About terrorism? About gun control? About racism and sexism and all the other ways that we hate each other and distrust each other and fail to live and work together in peace?

Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have any answers. But I have confidence in the power of one of the oldest vehicles of knowledge in the world. We already have stories about these issues - but in many cases those stories are no longer serving our highest good. Maybe its time to write some new ones?

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