“Can Art Save Us?” my friend asks.
He argues, of course, that it can.
It must. It will.
There is reason and there is spirit.
Ideas can be brought to joyous, thriving life.
People talking, thinking, reaching out
across impossible borders, sparks
flying brightly across dark boundaries,
sounds of clapping hands
turning into holding hands,
morphing into songs or poems
about peace and love.
I wanted to believe in this
when we walked past the Belfast walls,
filled with hopeful messages
scrawled below the stark razor wire.
Sidewalk curbs painted bright with colors
so you will know which side you are on
when the walled gates slam shut at six pm.
Gaza has them too.
Though they do not ever open easily
at least for one side.
There are people in these places who see music
as a ladder, optimism climbing up and over,
a trajectory of communities in positive motion.
The Belfast murals, the shuttered desert enclosures,
the not so invisible dividing lines in the dirt
may call out a different tune altogether.
Oh I do so want to believe in the power
of pens and batons and brushes
to save everyone. But I worry
that the redemptive energy of music and art
is a First World dream.
A woman suddenly drops
onto a South Sudan street
from a hunger so great
she has left her children far behind her.
At the hospital where she is taken,
she is not even an unusual case.
In fact, she will be quickly released. And die.
There will be no funeral march.
No drumming or soft a capella mourning songs.
I want to embrace the salvational capacity
of imaginative beings.
If only we could sing food into existence,
use bursts of raw color to replace gunshots,
write poems that warring leaders would recite
to each other in the honesty of the stark night.
What if the woman on the street
had a story in her head
that was not about starvation at all?
What if she had been mixing melodies and harmonies
into a joyous idea of survival?
And she was standing here to tell us all
how to rejoice in still being alive?
This would be the purest magic.
Or perhaps the simple purity
of creative magical thinking.
Oh yes. I want to believe.
Testing the Limits of Art
by Mary K O'Melveny
First published by GFT PRESS in April 2016