The Power of Laughter

Watt Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

As we have seen, art can do a lot of things. Art can help us think about things in different ways, it can delve deeply into the lives of people, it can make us feel intense sadness or anger. Art can call us to action. But art can also do something else, something that we enjoy very much but don’t always think about. Art can make us laugh. Paul Astor, in a interview in the Atlantic, describes one of his favorite passages of Samuel Beckett’s work and argues that laughter is essential to writing. Astor claims that laughter, and the power that literature has to make us laugh, has a cathartic, healing effect. He claims that Beckett “worked on the pages of the-never-quite-finished Watt at night. He said he wrote the book to keep himself from going insane.” Laughter had a cathartic effect for Beckett, helping him to survive the German occupation during WWII. But it also has a cathartic effect on the readers. Astor claims that literature, even serious literature, should have comedic moments because it’s “the way we’re built as human beings, and often when we’re in dark circumstances we survive them by cracking jokes.”


Walking My Dog

Eddy De Azevedo Walking My Dog I
Eddy De Azevedo
Walking My Dog I

Eddy De Azevedo collects trash and discarded objects on his walks with his dog. He then turns these into colorful art pieces.  De Azevedo’s pieces are beautiful and bright, but they also bring to light the amount of pollution in the oceans. His works cover “20 kilometers of wandered beach and hundreds of pieces of debris. More than 600 lighters, 1000 bottle caps, 200 fishermen gloves, and 2000 plastic bottles make up some of his materials for these works.” De Azevedo impressively creates beauty from everyday objects, but also questions the sheer amount of waste that humans create and the way that this negatively impacts our environment.

Stop Telling Women To Smile

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

We have seen a few different cases of street art, and it seems to be a particularly powerful way to bring a message directly to everyday people. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an illustrator/painter based in Brooklyn, uses street art in order to talk about the way that women are perceived and treated. Fazlalizadeh draws portraits of women and then accompanies them with captions that directly speak to offenders of harassment.This use of street art is particularly powerful in this case because it is addressing street-based harassment, therefore speaks directly to the public it references. Stop Telling Women To Smile  “takes women’s voices, and faces, and puts them in the street – creating a bold presence for women in an environment where they are so often made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe.” Fazlalizadeh’s work creates a safer space for women, in a space that is so often unsafe, and creates a space where women can question and challenge the harassment that often seems commonplace. It creates a space where women can stand together in the face of harassment.


Warpaint Coco Layne
Coco Layne

“Warpaint,” a collage of self-portraits created by Coco Layne, has been a hot topic in the Internet world these days. From Facebook, and Twitter, to Tumblr and Buzzfeed, it seems like a large portion of the Internet is discussing this series of photos that challenge conceptions of gender expression. In this piece, Layne particularly wants to clarify the distinction between gender presentation and gender identity, as well as the fact that this is a reflection of her own personal experience and not meant to represent the experience of all queer people everywhere. An article from the Huffington Post quotes Layne who claims she ” never felt like I was wearing a disguise at any time [throughout the project]. Although my physical appearance may fluctuate, there’s never any behavioral shift with me. ‘Warpaint’ comes from the perspective of a cisgendered queer woman of color, so it reflects my own unique experience and isn’t meant to speak for other queer people, although our experiences may intersect in some ways.” Furthermore, she claims “it’s important to open up this conversation about gender presentation because its often confused and read as gender identity…Gender presentation is not about sexual orientation at all! Playing around with gender expression is strictly an avenue to explore my identity as a queer person not my sexual identity.” While of course she does not speak for all queer people everywhere, it is clear from the popularity of this piece that many people identify with Layne’s experiences and appreciate that Layne is willing to explore something, in such a public forum, that is so difficult to talk about.

Migrant Mother

"Migrant Mother" (1936) Dorothea Lange
“Migrant Mother” (1936)
Dorothea Lange

Photography has historically been a medium of art that spreads messages related to social justice issues. We have already seen the case of Alix Smith as well as Jacob Riis, not to mention JR‘s nontraditional take on the medium. Perhaps some of the power of photography comes from its documentary nature. Photography can put a personal face on issues, it can present you not with overwhelming facts and figures, but with the piercing eyes of a woman who can’t feed her children.

Dorothea Lange, a photographer known for her work during the Depression, used her photography to bring the experiences of sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers to public attention. The above photograph, also titled “Human Erosion in California”, was taken by Lange in a pea-picker’s camp in 1936. Lange, in an interview in 1960, recalls meeting the woman and claims “She and her children had been living on frozen vegetables from the field and wild birds the children caught. The pea crop had frozen; there was no work. Yet they could not move on, for she had just sold the tires from the car to buy food.” While there is some dispute as to whether this account is accurate, Lange’s portrait of this woman is striking. After this photo was published in the San Francisco News, the government was alerted to the plight of the workers and rushed in with 20,000 pounds of food to rescue workers. The photography of Dorothea Lange, like the photography of so many others, truly demonstrates the power of art in enacting social change.

Tree Fall

Tree Fall, Andy Goldsworthy Presido National Park, San Francisco, CA
Tree Fall, Andy Goldsworthy
Presido National Park, San Francisco, CA

Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who uses nature to create his art, unveiled his newest installation on Oct 19 in the Presido National Park in San Francisco, CA. This piece, just like Goldsworthy’s other work, uses only objects and materials found in nature–in this case a felled tree, and clay derived from the surrounding land. Goldsworthy’s work asks us to take a closer look at nature, and the natural beauty that surrounds us. In an article for the Smithsonian Magazine in 2005, Arthur Lubow describes Goldsworthy as a “modern-day Impressionist” and parallels Goldsworthy’s fascination with the changing natural light and landscape with Monet’s. However what is equally fascinating about Goldsworthy’s work, and what Lubow notices as well, is the ephemerality of it. Often Goldsworthy’s work is only around for a few brief moments, just enough to be photographed, before being carried away by the wind or washed away by a tide. While Tree Fall is much less ephemeral than some of his other work, there is still an ephemerality to it. The clay crumbles and peels, and while perhaps the entire installation won’t be washed away, it will continue to go through it’s natural decaying processes. (There is also the imposed ephemerality of the installation only being open until Dec 1.) Goldsworthy’s art has something very important to say about the ephemerality of our natural world, and also about the beauty of it. His work calls us to appreciate the world around us, and asks us to look no further for art than outside our own door.

Performing in the Midst of Violence

A question that I wonder about a lot, and one that seems to concern other artists and activists as well, is what role does art have to play in the midst of conflict? While I think it’s probably pretty clear from the theme of most of the posts in this blog that I think that art definitely has an important role to play in confronting social justice issues, I am always interested to see how artists see their role and how they think about creating art in places filled with violence and conflict. Dijana Miloševic, a director and co-founder of DAH Theatre in Belgrade, also has some interesting reflections on this issue. In her chapter, “Theatre as a Way of Creating Sense: Performance and Peacebuilding in the Region of the Former Yogoslavia,” Miloševic discusses her process and reflects on performances she created in the midst of the violent civil war that plagued her country. In the beginning of the chapter, she asks some of the same questions that I do: “What is the role and meaning of theatre? What is the responsibility of artists in times of darkness, violence and suffering? Can art, specifically theatre, be a tool for peace?” (29). In examining a few of the performances she created during the war, she seems to find a few different answers to these questions. She describes a piece, titled Maps of Forbidden Remembrance, which was performed in different contexts and for different audiences, having significantly different meanings each time. When performed in Belgrade, the piece served to “create public space for mourning, and to give voice to the silenced history.” When performed in the United States, it “informed people about the tragedy and inspired a similar process of facing the past” (35). This piece is only one example of the many ways that Miloševic and her theatre company create performances that promote peacebuilidng and reconciliation in a region tormented with violence. One of the things that struck me most about all of the performances she describes is the way that performance has the ability to create space—space for truth-telling, space for mourning, space for questioning and challenging, space for community. Also, I was moved by the way that performance is connected to memory, and the way that this memory can be used not to further violence, but to create a future that does not forget the past. Ultimately, Miloševic concludes, “theatre can create a space that allows memory to live in its full dignity—memory that opens the way for the truth to be heard again, and gives voice to the ones who cannot be otherwise heard” (43). So perhaps this, at least partly, is an answer to the question that both Miloševic and I ask. One role of the theatre (and performance and perhaps art in general)  in the midst of violence is to create safe spaces, to remember, and to give voice to the voiceless.

Miloševic, Dijana. “Theatre as a Way of Creating Sense: Performance and Peacebuilding in the Region of the Former Yugoslavia.” Acting Together: Performance and The Creative Transformation of Conflict. Ed. Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, Polly O. Walker. Vol. 1. Oakland: New Village Press, 2011. 23-43. Print.