In Times of Crisis, Art Is Necessary

18 Mar

In times of crisis I’m often tempted to pontificate on how important it is to make sure places and objects of artistic or historical value are protected.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t seem that important.  The last week has been one of those times.

Like most of the world, I’ve sat in awe at the footage from Japan and the absolute devastation that’s happened.  It would be one thing if that was the only problem in the world right now, but one of what had previously been relatively peaceful revolts in North Africa turned to a full-on war.  It can be hard to think about art when so many human lives have been lost and so many people are suffering.

I’m willing to say, though, that we need art.  In fact, at times like this art is absolutely vital.  It may seem trivial, but while rescue and medical professionals are caring for the bodies of those in crisis, art is there for the soul.  The creation of art can be therapeutic to those who have been through a disaster.  Beyond that, though, art is uplifting.  It can serve as a poignant reminder that culture is extremely resilient and can and will survive any attack on it.

Earlier this month government officials, cultural preservation organizations, and museum professionals marked the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.  In 2001 the Taliban was at the height of its repressive power, and extremist clerics were able to push through the destruction of the two centuries-old statues.  The amazing thing is that some of those who were given the task of laying the explosives refused initially.  Some were even shot for their disobedience.  (You can read about it here.)  The emotional blow of seeing two such magnificent symbols of human achievement and freedom of thought was felt worldwide.

Even despite the fact that Afghanistan no longer has a Buddhist population the statues were considered part of the local heritage.  The debate now is whether to rebuild them, as both a symbol of freedom and tolerance after the oppressive regime of the Taliban and also as an economic boost to the region.  I’m not about to say that Afghanistan doesn’t have any other issues to deal with, but the example of the Bamiyan Buddhas shows how important the emotional appeal of art is, especially in nation struggling to rebuild itself.

Tragedies can inspire some of the greatest works of art and can also draw us to what we have already as a source of comfort and reassurance.  When we are suffering we cling to our art and culture as a way of self-preservation.  Art gives us an opportunity to honor and celebrate the human spirit no matter what our cultural background.  Even from thousands of miles away we can go to museums and see the beauty in cultures that are currently ravaged by disaster and contemplate our shared humanity.  These are the emotions needed to overcome a disaster, and they are exactly what art gives us.

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