Art, Justice and Rumours of Glory

What good is art in the face of injustice?

I mull this over in the wake of five shootings. Four of them just blocks from our Space. The fifth not much further. Alberta Avenue drags along a history of injustice. Prostitution. Drugs. Vandalism. At times, violence. I do not feel unsafe. But I do feel compelled to respond.

I wonder, sometimes, if art is the right response. There is poverty of the body and the spirit. There is hunger of every sort. I believe in a God who satisfies hunger and need. Is art, then, a waste of my energy? Is there not some more important business to be about?

What good is art in the face of injustice?

I ask this question 2 seasons into Rectify, an astuonding series about a man let off death row after 19 years, into the deadly judgement of the small town where he was accused. It is brutal and honest but at its deepest core Rectify is hopeful. Somehow it carries a different tone than the darkness of House of Cards or Breaking Bad. Some heart has poured into this show a goodness that is hard to pin down, but impossible not to feel. Each episode makes me want to be a better person. To love better. To forgive. To heal.

Rumours Of Glory: A Memoir
By Bruce Cockburn

What good is art in the face of injustice, then?

I ponder this after turning the final page on Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, Rumours of Glory. In this 500 page epic that spans the first three decades of Cockburn’s career, readers travel to the darkest corners of Central America, Africa, Cambodia, and always back towards the darkness of our own wealthy continent. Cockburn’s faith has softened at all edges–he seems open to almost any expression of the Divine so long as it is a movement in love. My faith is not so permeable, but it’s amazing Cockburn has any faith left at all after what he has seen.

So is art enough to save us? Cockburn says no.

“Music can have emotional impact, and it maintains an important place in the nurturing of culture and of dissent … But a song by itself does not foment change; it is a harbinger or chronicler, a spark. Often journalists ask me, 'Do you think music really changes anything, changes the world?' I’d answer, 'No, I don’t. People do.’”

- Bruce Cockburn, Rumours of Glory, p. 274, 275

I’m with Bruce. Art will not save us. Not art alone. Not art loosed from the bonds of love. Not the art of the ‘Capital-A Artist'. But the art of the witness helps. Art that reminds us there is beauty gives rise to an increase of that elusive quality. That sort of art leads us towards justice.

People change things, not art. But sometimes art changes people.

On and near the Ave, shots were fired not long ago. It may happen again. And yet, at the Bleeding Heart Art Space, Riley Tonove’s paintings hang silent on the walls. Unmoved by violence. Unflinching in their message that there is a sacred beauty and stillness waiting for our eyes and ears to notice.

If we can notice that beauty, perhaps we can learn to notice the beauty in each other. And there we will find justice.

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