Art is Power

On a different topic from yesterday’s post…

I want to talk about the power of creative expression.

Art says things that cannot be said. It is more powerful than any army, war or bomb. There is a reason that the most ruthless dictators in the history of the world stifled out freedom of speech, non-propaganda works of art, and destroyed many of those who persisted to create freely.

I saw this most blatantly in China. I was there with a group studying art- and one would assume that there would be an easy, free dialogue between our group and many of the artists we met (language barriers aside). But I found, by the end of my stay, a strong sense of weariness- a sort of fearfulness when it came to speaking honestly about their inspiration. My instructor made a point to vouch for me- as he was well known by the people we met, and once the artists felt safe- well, they were excited to talk about their art. I got free magazines, countless business cards, and a rare chance to see their opinions.

Early on during that trip I had asked my professor what his artwork meant, both to him and the world. His response? I’ll tell you when everyone has left for lunch. When they finally left? I realized he had an entire extra studio filled with unique, beautiful, but very political, works of art. He told me of his concerns over China’s growing generation gap, the environment he saw children grow up in. There was a strong emphasis on the rapid loss of traditional cultural values.

But he did not speak freely about this. China is famous for its censorship, but what is often ignored when countries begin to censor their people is that art becomes more restricted. I applied for a Fulbright grant a year after having traveled to China, and was told by everyone from close friends to former Fulbright recipients to the major scholarships coordinator that I would most likely be awarded the grant. I was told not to worry- I spoke the language, studied the culture, and had strong in-country contacts.

But I was not awarded the Fulbright. I was not put on a waitlist. A few days after finding out, the major scholarships coordinator asked how I was doing. She was confused and frustrated too- she had never seen such a strong application turned down. But then, this is China. Any research done will need to be approved by the government. If the research is not easily controllable- i.e. the people being interviewed have not been vetted for promoting the country in a positive light- it is considered a threat. Whether or not the artists I talked to were known to be political in their work was beside the point; there was no way to control what they would have said.

My point is this: These artists, whose names would not be recognizable to most people even within the fine arts community, were a threat. They could create something so powerfully expressive that even all of China’s extensive censorship controls would not be able to stop. The feelings were so honestly represented in a visual form that they would transcend all language barriers, they would, so to speak, paint a picture of what the people felt (not just what they said to stay safe)

So CREATE- small or large, political or not- it will have a greater power than simply stating your thoughts. If I could represent my grief in an image, you wouldn’t be able to burn it out of your mind: it would speak many more than a thousand words. 



One comment

  1. Very true words. In fact there was a Scottish politician in the 18th century who once said; ‘Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.’ He, like many others, have known just how powerful art and creativity can be in shaping the hearts and minds of those who are its audience. It seems China is very much aware of this power too. Sometimes it can be, as you say, very easy to think of art – books, photographs, paintings, sculptures, films, whatever – as just entertainment but it can be so much more than that.


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