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Does Art Save Lives?

Posted by on November 17, 2012

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya

Thoughts from Curator of Art and Collections Susan Leask.

Years ago, I was given a one-dollar bill as change after purchasing something mundane. Stamped on the bill was “Art Saves Lives.” At that time, I was vacillating between choosing art history or mathematics as an undergraduate study path. Although I did become an art history major, I did not do so because I saw the message as an indication that the universe was sending me a personal memo;  in fact, I thought the sentiment was funny and a bit overblown. Years later, while packing up for graduate school, I “re-found” the dollar bill and decided to put it back into circulation because, by then, I saw it not as merely humorous, but as a big Truth:  Art Saves Lives.

Powerful art offers us perspectives we may not know exist and can lead us to a better understanding of the world and of ourselves. It can provide images that inspire research into historic and contemporary issues. In 1814-15, Goya painted The Third of May 1808, a painting the late Robert Hughes called the first protest artwork. When we look at it, we can see Goya’s anger and passion in the frenzied brushstrokes.  Having seen it, how can we help but question the motivations behind violent acts and be inspired to act in ways to ensure a more peaceful future? Over twelve decades later, Picasso’s 1937 Guernica, which continues to be a symbol and reminder of the tragedy of war, set off an immediate sympathetic roar. In 1972, when Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s photograph of a nine-year old girl whose clothes had been burned off by a napalm bomb was published, war protesters took to the streets in huge numbers. More recently, many of us became painfully aware of the atrocities in the Abu Ghraib prison when artists started exhibiting work of the harrowing images of released photographs and published stories.

Art saves us by helping us understand social problems and encourages us towards empathy. When a newspaper published Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother in 1936, readers sent money to help the starving migrant families who had traveled all the way from Oklahoma to find that a frost had killed the pea crop they had hoped to pick. Nearly thirty years later, Norman Rockwell’s heartbreaking 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With jarred some Americans out of apathy and “onto the bus” of the Civil Rights Movement. How could anyone not be moved and feel their protective instincts activated when they saw the image of tiny Ruby Bridges being escorted by four U.S. marshals through a hostile, angry mob of parents (mostly mothers) so she could go to her first-grade class?

In order for art to save us, however, we have to open our eyes.  We cannot be passive viewers. We have to let art serve as a starting point for internal investigation and external communication. We must participate in the process so that it can help us interpret, classify, reframe and assimilate information. Henry Miller once said “Art teaches us nothing, except the significance of life.” I think I will write that on a purple five-dollar bill and use it to buy a pack of gum.

P.S. If you want to see The Problem We All Live With, go to the Crocker Art Museum between now and February 3, 2013.