It’s funny how memory works and how it recollects random observations we make of a given moment. Sometimes the things we remember aren’t really historic or so emotionally groundbreaking, sometimes they’re actually quite trivial details of a particular moment. I remember from years ago I was sitting in class, I don’t remember how many years ago or what class it was. The lights were turned off because we were shown a powerpoint presentation, I don’t remember by whom or of what the presentation was given. The popular kids were seated in the back of the class like usual, leaning back and balancing on the two hind legs of their chairs, occupied with their own version of playground gossip just as I was with my circle of friends a few rows in front of them. I remember silence overtaking the room as one particular slide showed up on the projector screen. It was a photograph of a child sitting on dry grounds, ribs protruding out of the skins of her torso. In the background, slightly off focus, was a vulture. That was the day I first saw the iconic Pulitzer winning photo shot by Kevin Carter of the vulture and the starving child. I don’t remember what I said after seeing that picture but I remembered feeling like I needed to get out of the room and run as far away from there as possible.
The only other thing I remembered from the presentation was that we were asked by the presenter on what we thought of the photograph. They asked us, “What do you think of this picture? Do you think it was the right thing to do to have taken that photo instead of actually helping the child? What would you have done in that situation?” The question really disconcerted me, I’m sure it did most if not all of my peers as well. We could not have been twelve at most. At the time I thought, “Well obviously something’s wrong with the guy if he insisted on clicking away at his camera as he watched the life extinguish out of a helpless child right before him!” which in retrospect seems kind of judgmental and off-putting of me to say. Then we were told that the photographer had died, committing suicide caused by the insufferable guilt as a direct result of the image that haunted him for the remainder of his life. Or so it was implied.
It was a memorable moment in my life because we were suddenly confronted by this very real and very complex question of prioritisation and purpose. Certainly journalism is clouded by this dilemma on a daily basis. Many journalists are witnesses to very profound and/or devastating events, and with each of these events they must decide whether they want to intervene in the event and participate, or do their jobs and report it. But as people in general we often face the same kind of situation. We are witnesses to countless historical events each day whether we choose to pay attention or not, participate or not, commentate or not. Personally I still often feel a strange disconnection between the things I read or hear on the news and the things that are ‘really happening’ in my life. Clearly the two are not actually disconnected at all, but it can be quite difficult to establish that state of awareness in each waking second. I’m aware that things are happening and yet also unaware at the same time.
This memory was comfortably stored in the backburner until it was recently jogged again thanks to the Vlogbrothers. One of their videos entitled “Poetry makes nothing happen: Thoughts on Ai Weiwei” revolved around the Ai Weiwei exhibit “According to What” in Indianapolis in which a room was devoted to the earthquake in Sichuan, China. In that room thousands of steel bars from the remains of the earthquake were straightened out and arranged on the floor, reminding us of the sloppy construction work of the school buildings there which Ai believed to be the hand of corrupt officials. The walls were decorated by names of the students who died from the quake, each read out in an audio installation which ran for 3 hours and 41 minutes. That’s how long it takes to list the amount of students who died from the catastrophe. In the video John Green spoke on the famous remark made by W.H. Auden that poetry makes nothing happen, in that no matter how beautiful or poignant the piece was, it still did not bring back the lost lives from Sichuan, just like Carter’s photograph did not save the starving child. Nothing happened.
Something we believe to be character of human beings is our ceaseless desire and pursuit of a purpose. We need to think that there is a reason to us being alive and that in order to die peacefully we need to have that reason fulfilled, we need to have made something happen. Sure, Auden’s statement could be argued hundreds of ways and one can rationally say that the fact that we are still talking about these issues today is proof enough that those respective works left an impact on society and therefore made something happen. Did Carter save that one life that lay before him? No. Did he raise awareness to an issue (which embarrassingly still persists regardless of the timeframe between the date the photograph was taken and the date this piece was written) which possibly lead to inspiring countless movements dedicated towards eradicating world hunger and poverty? Yes. From a viewpoint that’s completely detached from personal and deep emotional involvement, Kevin Carter made something happen. But that viewpoint was not the viewpoint that had to make the moral decision of saving an individual child over what could feel like ‘just taking a photograph.’ It was not the viewpoint that had to be constantly reminded of said decision (Carter being both lauded and criticised by audience and contemporaries alike for that photograph). And more often than not, it is not this viewpoint with which we personally base our decisions on a daily basis.
“Poetry makes nothing happen.” This is the notion that those of us who live on the arts must confront every day. And yet we mustn’t believe it’s true because to think that art is in any way pointless will hinder us from our purpose: to make art. One might say that it’s what we do best and to not do the thing that we can do best is to not live according to our purpose, almost a betrayal to the ode to life. The consequences of art on the world may not be as direct or revolutionary as the advances science is able to generate but it is still there, or at least I’d like to believe that it’s there. Because art moves us in ways and through ways that nothing else could. I believe really good art doesn’t seek to act or create, it should not manipulate us into behaving or feeling a certain way, rather it pulls at the strings that are already within us. Art reminds us of the things we need to do and are capable of doing. It resurrects empathy, never create. In a way I think the ultimate purpose of an artist isn’t to recreate himself through his favoured medium but rather that he should be the medium through which the world must speak. So maybe Federico Fellini was right in heeding that we should ask any artist truly worth the name to learn silence, because what we need from them isn’t to necessarily participate or commentate but to listen and help us listen, to remind us of the things we’re supposed to be paying attention to.
On the entrance page of Alfredo Jaar’s site is a quote from William Carlos Williams’s website: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Poetry does make something happen; it provides us with reasons to act if we choose to listen.