The Power of Art to Fuel Movements

Aug/25/2020 / by Seema Kumar
Art to Fuel Movements

The pen is mightier than the sword. A picture is worth a thousand words. And a paint brush can change the world. Today’s turbulent times remind us that while science and technology are key drivers of progress in our society, art can awaken our psyche and define our collective ethos. 

Time and again, we have seen marginalized groups and their allies take solace in the arts and their power to express truth and discontent. I recall many moments in the past few decades where art has served a noble social purpose, fueling movements and providing context and meaning to human struggle. It is storytelling at its finest, one that provides dimension to pain and suffering and evokes the conscience to the need for social justice and change.

One of my earliest memories of the power of art and of poetry was during history lessons on how Indian art and literature contributed to the country’s freedom struggle. Rabindranath Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free…” is still etched in my mind. To this day, I can recite it in my sleep. 

Another major example is the expression of hope during the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, first conceived and created in San Francisco in 1987, was an artistic expression of defiance against a deadly disease that ultimately claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. A vast patchwork of more than 50,000 colorful panels commemorates the lives lost to AIDS. There are patients’ paintings telling stories of how HIV wreaked havoc on their bodies, and plays and music that express the complex human emotions evoked in the fight against HIV. This includes the famous play “And the Band Played On.” My favorite songs of those days are from the 1996 Broadway musical hit Rent, like “Seasons of Love.” Here are some of the lyrics, written and composed by Jonathan Larson: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear. Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?” That song expresses what it is like to know that you only have one year to live, and concludes in the chorus that the most effective means is to “measure in love.”

Art has come to soothe our sorrow and our struggles in many other ways, including in the aftermath of 9/11, and to express both the outrage and pride of the LGBTQ community with its rainbow flag.

Today, as we live through these unprecedented times, of COVID, of unrest, of social injustice, we again turn to science for solutions — for testing, for therapies, for vaccines — but to art for solace and symbolism of our discontent and of our solidarity.

In the past three months we have seen artistic expression on a massive scale all across the country, expressing what its like to live with COVID and standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Examples of this include street artists around the world sending messages of despair and hope during the pandemic, and the Foley Square street art in Lower Manhattan, with the letters spelling out ‘Black Lives Matter’ evoking memories of those who fell, but also the need for hope and freedom.

It is important to showcase and support the arts at this time. Many South Asian women have used art as a way to stand with our Black sisters. We have proudly showcased art that expresses our solidarity, and today we are proud to announce that one such piece of art, commissioned by SEEMA, will be auctioned by the artist and the proceeds donated to BLM.

I have always believed and advocated for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as an important driver of progress in society. I also remain steadfast in my support and advocacy of the arts to dimensionalize human emotion and to provide context and meaning to the struggle that contributes to that progress.

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