Can Art Change Things? -Part 1

When I was growing up I was obsessed with war. The heroic act ….the adrenalin rush … the excitement … the glory.  I loved war films and Westerns. It wasn’t like most cinema today with its gritty realism but really it was about the good guys and the bad guys, the glory and the victory. There was no room for grey, it was clear cut. The guy with the black hat was the baddy and guy in the white hat was the goody, and of course we were always the good guys.


In fact, one of my favourite actors was a guy called Audie Leon Murphy and he happened, not just to be an actor, but a real life war hero. He was one of the most decorated soldiers of the Second World War. He received many honours from a number of different countries including the Medal of Honour – the USA’s highest military award for valour. Obviously, in my mind my screen hero was acting out what war is all about, and what it was really like.


What’s all this got to do with art!? In the early 70’s, I started to get interested in photography and because of my interest in war I got a book out of the library by Don McCullin (it may have been a book with examples of his work in it). My view of war changed from that moment. I was shocked by the reality, I saw that war wasn’t very heroic, although men performed heroic acts, that the adrenalin rush was more about survival than excitement, that any glory was usually tainted by the loss of innocent life and friends. War was never really black and white but very grey, with all kinds of dishonourable motives mixed with the honourable ones. War was gruesome and messy and destructive to individuals and cities and communities and nations, and, should be avoided if at all possible.


This experience opened my mind to the horrors of war, but it taught me much more. It taught me that art forms can change things. That art challenges our mindset and assumptions. It gives us a new view point, a new perspective on life. Art can help us change the way we look at the world from a practical, conceptual and ascetic standpoint.


But, it doesn’t just change or touch our minds and intellects but also our soul – that emotional part of us that gasps with awe or frowns with indignation or grimaces with horror. That part of us that is moved to tears or howls of laughter. Art moves us in this arena – it can change the way we feel, it can lighten a sad mood, it can bring joy into despair, it can make us angry, it can exude feelings of sadness even depression. I remember when I was studying photography at Barnfield College in Luton, going to an exhibition in London. There were four very large canvases shaped like a room with just a small gap to get through. The four canvases were just painted a very dark purple and the title was something like ‘Depressed’ and as you entered that space your mood definitely shifted – it conveyed what the artist was feeling.


Art also moves and changes our spirit – that part of us that longs for more, aspires to greater things, that wants more than mere reality or at least a different type of reality – a reality that is shrouded in some mystery – that satisfies something deeper in us   perhaps, it’s the yearning of the image of the Creator that is in us.


Art often evokes memories and helps us to engage with our past, both good and bad! How many of you have memories rekindled by a certain song or piece of music!


And these things happen not just in the looking at or listening to art but I have found some of the most challenging, life changing times for me have been in the making of art and I don’t just mean the technical side of making it! It is a challenge to make time to connect with that creative side, to allow myself to look at the world from a different angle, to take a break from ‘seeming reality’ and find something different, a different angle or to have my humanity challenged as I frame up a shot of human distress, or poverty or of a different culture and have to ask the question why am I taking this shot or why am I taking it this way.


So, whether we are looking at art, listening to art or making art I believe it is a powerful tool to challenge our mindset, to make us look at something differently, to help change us.


As we present and show our art let us believe, let have ‘faith’ that it is a powerful tool to change and shape the world we live in.


Ian Rowlands