Beyond the Bubble: How can art fight violence?

by Andrea Nease | 2/9/15 6:05pm

What is the purpose of art? Is art supposed to be an escape or a refuge, a soothing balm for our eyes to peruse? Or is art supposed to be something more?

I think most people would agree that art is intellectually stimulating and even a powerful tool for social change. Art has a way of seeping into our minds and prodding at our understandings of current social conventions. I have read many articles on issues of social injustice and gender equality, but sometimes the articles provide me with nothing more than words on a page — after reading so many accounts of this or that tragedy, a serious disconnect develops. Hearing “one in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime” becomes just another statistic, when in all seriousness it is a jaw-dropping reality.

How do we reconcile the emotional truth between the world around us and with the text written on a page? Art has long provided resolution of the dichotomy between experiencing and understanding.

Studying Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s photographs from her piece “Shane and Maggie: An Intimate Look at Domestic Violence,” I find it hard to look away — I find it hard to slow my heartbeat. This visceral and emotional response is something I don’t feel after reading that domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families.

There is a connection that raw art can form that words on a page rarely do these days. Jean Fautrier, a French painter, made a series of paintings entitled “Hostage” in 1945 in response to the horrors of Nazi Germany. Fautrier painted these after fleeing “to a sanatorium in the Parisian suburb of Châtenay-Malabry, where he painted within earshot of the woods where German forces conducted massacres at night,” according to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Viewing a painting of an abstract, desecrated and disembodied head will give you an understanding of Nazi horror that no textbook ever could.

Art about sexual assault and domestic violence functions in the same way.

We hear, “one in three female homicide victims are murdered by their current or former partner every year,” but do we really think about assault any differently after hearing that statistic? Or do we just give it a moment of silence and move on?

Art movements encouraging education about sexual assault and gender-based violence are taking hold all over the world. From “Graffiti to Combat Violence Against Women” in Brazil to Charlotte Farhan’s “Art to End the Silence on Rape” in France and England to Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” project at Columbia University, artists are making their cause known.

The sooner we realize the power of art in the social and political realm, the sooner we can reduce sexual assault. If all someone hears are immeasurable statistics they aren’t going to feel connected. They are going to hear three million children witness domestic violence in their homes each year — according to the organization Safe Horizon — but they are not going to know the real, emotional effect that this experience has on these children and their families.

The College is not exempt from this phenomenon of cultural disconnect between the statistics and the reality of sexual assault and gender-based violence. We are very much in the midst of addressing these matters, and have yet to derive a solution. Although many college students like to pride themselves on their social progressiveness and overall understanding of equality, we cannot fully understand the emotional reality of sexual assault and gender-based violence without personal experience.

Now this is not to say that someone who has not endured sexual assault or sexual violence cannot understand its terrible implications. It is to say that knowing a handful of statistics and having read about the rape in Steubenville, Ohio or at Vanderbilt University are not enough to claim a full understanding. Engaging with the issue and its emotional reality is necessary, and art is probably one of the most accessible route for engagement.

Attending something like the “Vagina Monologues” can provide students with a much more gripping rendition of sexual assault and the trauma that accompanies it. The “Vagina Monologues” are a form of art, and they are a form of awareness that rarely exist in statistic-heavy texts or straightforward reporting. I encourage everyone to attend the monologues or any V-Day event this term, because they show you what statistics alone cannot.

Don’t let the statistics fall flat. Engage with the art that surrounds the movement against sexual assault and domestic violence. Unlike statistics, artistic engagement doesn’t allow for denial of the trauma.

The College’s production of “Vagina Monologues” will take place Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium. “Voices” will be performed Mar. 3 and 4 at 7 p.m. in the Moore Theater.