JULY 21, 2010
By Sarah J Hart
On occasion I attend a lecture series that hosts artists, thinkers, inventors, and innovators showcasing their work. So far, nearly everything presented has been either a critique of some social phenomenon – such as the sharp and funny performances of Clarina Bezzola – or born of an effort to solve some problem – like Music For Tomorrow, Kabir Sehgal’s online site to help musicians make a living, or the remarkable program invented by Zach Lieberman to allow paralyzed artists and graffiti writers to draw with their eyes.
This past series was announced with a flyer featuring dead fish and Dr Seuss’s Lorax floating gloomily in an oil spill. Underneath was the suggestion that attending this evening’s lectures would “help save the planet.”
The first speaker was an engineer who made what he called transformable art. Basically, he designed structures that expanded and contracted in complex ways. Some of his work hangs in museums and in the videos he showed us the pieces moved with the elegant languor of sea anemones unfurling or meadow grasses rippling in the wind. Conditioned perhaps by the flyer, I expected him to culminate with a wondrous contraption designed to do some major social good – unfold to shelter to the shelterless, or mobilize the immobile, or peace-make, oil-spill-clean-up, and healthcare-crisis-fix – and then of course collapse back into the size of a duffel bag.
In fact, the engineer mentioned nothing like this at all. What he did show us was a stage that he made for U2’s most recent tour. It’s called The Claw and it is a spectacular feat of engineering with suspended video, concealed speakers, and 360° stage views. It’s space age technology, he said, and all components, from the adjustable screens to the specialized robots needed for assembly, had to be invented. It took a team of highest-grade engineers to develop it and requires 180 trucks for transport – which might actually mean 540 trucks because not just one but three of these things were built and while one is in use another is getting dissembled and a third moved to the next spot. He showed us pictures. The Claw is a craggy tripod that grips the earth and in the space between prongs a wee Bono crawls about like a lady bug.
A woman in the audience raised her hand. “How much does this cost?” she asked. The speaker shifted slightly on his feet. “Well, it depends on how you measure cost,” he said. “Fine, in dollars,” she persisted. “I’m giving away no numbers,” the speaker replied, “but let’s just say…” and he leaned in close to the microphone and his voice became very breathy, “…a looooooooooot.”
After, people milled and discussed. I spoke with three other attendees about the engineer and our conversation revolved around this question: Is it justifiable to spend a huge amount of money on entertainment? How much is too much?
Here’s the summary of the points of our debate.
1) Yes, it is okay, it is justified, if you consider the many, many people employed, the many, many careers advanced, and the many individual joys arrived at by those working on The Claw and those watching the concerts.
2) No, it is not justified. The money expended on this could surely have been invested differently – on clean water, medicine, economic investment in countries needing it – and ensured even more happiness to many more people.
3) Bono is a big ambassador for charity and if this is what he has to do to maintain the money and profile that make his community-service work possible, then so be it.
4) But isn’t there some sick irony that many of the minerals and metals required for that enormous, space-technology thing come from countries where the extraction of resources fuels the violence, poverty, and suffering Bono espouses to battle?
5) But this is art, science, discovery. This is the stuff of humanity. We can’t put a price on art. We should nurture and cherish creativity and innovation no matter what.
6) No. This is born of an unsustainable culture of consumerism and it should be checked.
Our debate yielded a draw. On the one hand we were all uncomfortable with a certain sense of excess, but we knew our opinion was arbitrary and anyway the only acceptable check would be either something vaguely top-down having to do with the economy or, of course, the veto of his audience and the sway of public opinion.
“Education…” we murmured. Education was the only solution.
But here’s the uncomfortable thing about education. Education – what is taught, and how, and by whom – is ultimately a vehicle of value. When we say it’s education that is necessary to shift people’s behavior we are implying that education will inspire a shift of values, and therefore a shift of action, to something we are more comfortable with. So, what is the ultimate response to Bono’s Claw? What is the core value we would want education to convey? What do we hold more dear – the “right” of individual self-expression? Or the collective “right” to, say, a vibrant ecological environment?
If we cherish the potential of each person to explore and convey the depths of his or her creativity and innovation, and believe everyone has a right to challenge boundaries and bring to bear his or her idea of right and wrong, are we willing to accept thickly pulsing oil spills that may be a consequence, some times? Or the ravages of war, the bigotry of culture, and the inequality of resource distribution? Or is it collective responsibility we value more? Do we believe that all people alive, and perhaps also those great, great grandchildren of the future, deserve the same quality of environment we evolved in, and the resources it takes to sustain life, and equal access to an equal sort of contentment? Do we believe that individual rights should be curbed in order to ensure that collective rights are achieved?
New York City is full of people like myself. We moved here from all over the world restless to synthesize our various ideas, emotions, and experiences into something of worth. Many of us want to do good. Some make art that exposes social ills; others work feverishly at creative and exciting innovations to ease the world’s problems. And when we read a flyer that claims learning about the work of other individualists, artists, thinkers, and innovators might be just the sort of education we need to help save the planet, a part of us hopes it is true.
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