It was an honor, as well as liberating, to be asked to write this review for William Cleveland’s, Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines. From the Foreword to the last word, we are challenged by the angst and injustice of life while being compelled to view a group of ‘Defenders’ who often reveal the plight of those who are downtrodden or persecuted. These advocates or defenders of the reviled are the artists of past and present that have shed light on injustice sometimes by risking their own safety and always their own pocketbook. This book should be a manual for art of the twenty–first century where revered art would be ‘art for our sake’ – poignant, reflective, even life altering. In a world torn with inequities for both humanity and our environment , let’s not turn to our armies to fight injustice but to that spirit which has the power to reveal and heal – the artist within each of us.
William Cleveland, met author Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who wrote the forward when they were among the first responders for teachers and young adults after the massacre at Columbine. In Dr. Este‘s captivates us with her insight from four decades of working with victims of disasters. She theorizes about the “life/death/life” cycle. She talks about when the tragedies are no longer in the public eye because the media has moved on. She says, “That’s when the art spirit is aroused, violently aroused in some cases: to tell the story. The real story. …” After we have been in the abyss of darkness she says we will “At the last turn, after torment, seeking learning through all these many aspects of self, after sudden turns, tragedy or soul-stealing conflict…there is unity, fertility again. Life force comes back to show above ground. What is lost comes back. Not in the same form as before, but like a new way of being, thinking that may never resemble who we once were, how we once lived before.”
Cleveland writes , “I work in a field broadly defined as community arts. While ‘community arts’ may be a modern term, it actually describes an activity that is quite old. It basically involves artists and their fellow citizen coming together to make art (paintings, performances, poetry and the like) that in some way reflects their common concerns.” One event that inspired the author to write this powerful book was something he witnessed in 1999 while in Belfast. Following 40 years of oppressive and relentless conflict in Northern Ireland, the Republican (Catholic) and Loyalist (Protestant) parties had a tentative truce. The project that Cleveland recalls was a “bold and risky theater project dealing with one of Northern Ireland’s most conflict-ridden issues- marriage between Protestants and Catholics. Though he had seen many “difficult, even dangerous issues” dealt with in the theater this was a different project – it was a cross-community theater project. The author says that, “As the play unfolded all the hurt, rage, humor, and hopefulness that had defined Northern Ireland’s quest for justice and peace were shared with an audience that, by the final curtain, had become a part of a newly constituted, cross-community family. He goes on to say that “it was an extraordinary work of transformational theater.”