Art can transform the world. Really.

4 Jun

I’m probably breaking all kinds of social media rules by blogging about an event that I attended last week. Although I was indeed tempted to bring my laptop and report from the event, I’m happy with my decision to focus on being present.

I was the fortunate guest of a friend at last week’s International Women’s Forum in Rome – an extraordinary group of diverse and accomplished women from around the world. I have to admit that I only took a cursory glance at the theme of the conference, “Art Transforming the World.” In truth, my interest was primarily in meeting the phenomenal women whom I knew would be present. When I thought of “transforming the world,” my train of thought tends to be more along the lines of cleantech transforming the world…globalizationsustainable developmentspiritual reflection transforming the world. But art? It just seemed a little frivolous. At a meeting of some of the most powerful, influential and accomplished women in the world, don’t we have more important things to discuss than the latest Versace bag style?

As someone remarked, we tend to polarize the concept of art – on one side we have art, and on the other side is the “real world.”

Guilty as charged. Beside, living here in Rome it’s easy to perceive art as purely historical, frozen in time.

[Note: Unfortunately I wrote down a number of words of wisdom by speakers in my notes without attributing who said them. So if anyone who attended the conference reads this can help fill in some blanks, please let me know!]

I could not have been more wrong. The conference inspired me, and I’d like to share a slice of what I experienced. I am humbled by the fact that my amateur writing skills will not be able to fully express my experience….duh…that art matters!

Art exposes and provokes

The Gun Sculpture

Imagine standing in front of a solid panel of ammunition, gun parts and landmines. The Gun Sculpture is a monstrous concentration of violence, brutality and death. To stumble upon it is like getting punched in the stomach, a disbelieving intake of breath. Your first reaction is how could someone have made “art” out of something so evil? Then, this section of the 5-tonne original draws you into a reflection upon the violence that pervades so much of popular culture. And the realization that horrific concentration of violence is but a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the ordinance that is being used now in the world.

I was intrigued that one of the creators, Canadian Sandra Bromley, told me that the inspiration for the piece came to her in a dream. In the words of the creators, “where the worldwide dissemination of arms takes place through clandestine exchanges—between governments, terrorists, gangs, or on the black market—Bromley and Kendal’s Gun Sculpture makes the secret life of weapons visible.”

Art expresses suffering, and can create a future vision of promise

Women in particular need to talk and share to overcome trauma, and art serves a vehicle to express the negative side of a personal or communal history. Whatever is communicated, is known. Art can give suffering a voice and a form, and in the process pain can be healed as it is expressed. And continuing down this path, art can create and imagine a better future.

Redemption Song, Franz Marzouca, Laura Facey, Catherine Haden

Laura Facey, a sculptor from Jamaica, not only discussed her “Redemption Song” sculpture, but also the remarkable healing process that allowed her to create it. She referred to a time in her life when she felt broken and depleted, and that her art reflected her emotional world as she created small and fractured pieces. Through her own healing process, (which included Reiki and Transcendental Meditation), she describes her work as becoming more prayerful and expressive, and is the case in the Redemption Song sculpture. Inspired by Bob Marley’s lyrics “none but ourselves can free our mind,” Laura illustrates the intention of the sculpture: “the water washes away the pain, angst and suffering of slavery. The figures rise having transcended the past, standing in strength, unity and reverence.”

It was thought-provoking to hear comments from several frustrated American women in the crowd, complaining about the trend for fine arts budgets in schools to be eliminated. Perhaps those responsible for arts funding share the unfortunate polarizing perspective of art being unnecessary for the “real world.” But it was also interesting to hear perspectives from countries that have far less access to resources than the States: “throwing money at art funding does not necessarily solve the problem, it only requires charismatic individuals providing leadership – and simply allowing time and space for creativity.” Bravo, Will Schuster!

Art informs

One of the more whimsical examples described an unconventional way that art was used to educate and inform masses of people. According to its website, the Center for Disease Control in the US (CDC)’s Mission “is to collaborate to create the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their health – through health promotion, prevention of disease, injury and disability, and preparedness for new health threats.”


Like most government organizations, it struggled in communicating important messages about health and safety to a complacent public.

Aliens and Terminator producer powerhouse Gale Anne Hurd described how a brief appearance on her zombie show “Walking Dead” inspired some unconventional communications folks at the CDC to try something new. Instead of a standard PSA, their Spring 2011 warned Americans of how to respond to the Zombie Apocalypse. Yup. Millions reviewed the survival preparedness kit on CDC’s site, including, which advised a gallon of water per day per person, non-perishable foods, medications, duct tape and a battery-powered radio. Hmmm, wait, that list sounds just like what’s you’d need in any manner of emergency scenario…ah, now I get it….

Art inspires

One of the speakers was radiant National Geographic & NY Times photojournalist, Ami Vitale. You can see that this woman has visited some of the most ravaged and underdeveloped places on the planet but all she can see is the mutual compassion and joy in people. I recalled how reading National Geographic as a child and the vivid images that stayed with me…in particular Pompeii and Angkor Wat…and inspired a lifetime of travel to faraway places.

On the most basic level, art can change your emotional state. How many times has a certain song elevated your mood from a funk of negativity? How else has art inspired or transformed you?

Thank goodness for the opportunity to re-examine foolish assumptions.


One Response to “Art can transform the world. Really.”

  1. Terry June 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    You are singing my song………

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