What use are the arts when our country is burning?

Michael Sollis 20 January 2020 4

How can the creative arts help us in a major environmental crisis? Photo: Jacob Kiesow.

New Year’s Eve was a burnt orange sky filled with poison air. My wife, son and I spent the day in an evacuation centre in Eden while travelling on the South Coast of NSW.

I felt guilty to live life as an artist after meeting people who faced such trauma and disaster. My wife and I saw TV images of the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo, where we’d spent time with the local community to create new artistic work.

But what good is such work when our country is burning?

This is a question I don’t feel equipped to answer. In comparison to the Australians who have suffered terrible loss, the impact on my family seems minuscule. There are also those around the world who are in the grip of warfare and persecution – places where the Arts play a role that I cannot understand.

So as a privileged, white male artist in a first-world country (even if the air quality is constantly ‘hazardous’), what can I do? As artists living in our nation’s capital – what can we do?

It was recently put to me that “the Arts promotes science literacy”. When we discover artwork for the first time we attempt to find order and personal connection.

Similarly, the scientific method is motivated by a drive to create order out of the world around us. I have seen some wonderful work that leverages the synergies between science and the arts to discover, be creative and tell stories, with such potential to inspire critical thought and positive change.

Percussionist Thea Rossen inspires students to consider the environment in a program called ‘Water Water Everywhere’ for Musica Viva. Thea plays all sorts of strange objects in a tub of water, performing Chinese composer Tan Dun’s Water Concerto.

I’ve watched children become transfixed as they engage with the show’s fundamental question which is both artistic and scientific: ‘How do we affect water, and how can water affect us?’

Similarly, in 2015 I was fortunate to develop a performance called ‘Sex and Dragons’ with the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology, which discovered that the sexual determination of bearded dragons would change at certain temperatures.

The performance prompted audiences to craft their own unique responses and to these issues. One audience member blogged: “And, of course, when we think temperature, we have to think climate change. What impact might this have on sex-determination in dragons (and potentially in other species)? The jury is out.”

Lead scientist on the project, Professor Stephen Sarre commented: “It’s so important that scientists try to spread knowledge and merging science and art is wonderful.”

This ‘merging’ gives artists such potential to prompt critical thought into the world around us.

We understand scientific endeavours through storytelling. For example, think of the race to the moon. Today, the story is a changing climate, and the arts are a potent tool to deepen our engagement.

Earlier this year, with some premonition, I became engrossed by Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads from 1940, described as the first-ever concept album. Guthrie ensured future generations would remember the events of one of America’s most significant environmental crises, the dust storms of the 1930s.

The social activism prompted by Guthrie was profound, and his lyrics remain eerily relevant today. For example, in the canonised ‘So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya’:

A dust storm hit, and it hit like thunder
It dusted us over and covered us under
Blocked out the traffic and blocked out the sun
Straight for home all the people did run.

As soon as the roads were open out of Eden, that is exactly what we did.

So what can artists do while our nation burns? My deep admiration goes to those who are organising benefit concerts and keeping the joy of creativity alive in displaced communities.

There are other ways artists can help as well: let’s continue to sing stories and paint pictures that provoke a consciousness of the earth.

The Arts have great potential to promote critical thought into the sciences and nurture a world that is inquiring and self-aware, without having to didactically espouse scientific concepts.

A curious, creative world is more likely to make decisions of a positive impact. Artists may be useless to a world that is already burnt, but perhaps the Arts can help prevent future fires, before it’s too late.

Canberra based musician and composer Michael Sollis is Musica Viva’s Artistic Director, Education (Australia’s largest music education program) and director of the Griffyn Ensemble.

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4 Responses to What use are the arts when our country is burning?
Paula Simcocks Paula Simcocks 11:54 pm 20 Jan 20

Looking back in times of war and crisis people loved the fun of live shows, music and drama. Lifts spirits, usually doesn’t cost much and provides a focus for people to bond and be happy together

Lindy Edwards Lindy Edwards 5:29 pm 20 Jan 20

Nanna was reciting Yeats as fires approached her place. And a he'll of a lot of people are going to be singing, drawing and writing in an attempt to process what they have been through.

Josie White Josie White 12:13 pm 20 Jan 20

I think that the arts have a role to play in alleviating community anxiety and providing some relief from the stresses and total devastation in some quarters. From the 2003 Canberra fires there was much art that followed including photographic records on the regrowth and other aspects, visual art exhibitions where the whole exhibition focussed on the fire event and the aftermath in the landscape. I recall a community mural activity at the Folk Festival as well as the concert that you Michael Sollis gave in the burnt out Stromlo observatory (very dear to the hearts of Canberrans). The Arts can contribute to the phoenix concept rising from the ashes by bolstering low spirits and providing optimism for the future.

stevew77 stevew77 12:27 pm 19 Jan 20

Hmmm….Australia has experienced next to no increase in average temp for 20 years.
Some people call it “the pause” others who follow actual science call it no global warming.

The arts are great, but make sure your story is based on hard scientific fact, lest people be mislead.

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