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The Duty of Art

By Tess Taylor

“Art saved my life.” “If it wasn’t for this [art] school, I would be dead.” I listened to dozens of children say this, one after another, matter-of-factly and without hesitation as they told their individual stories of bonded labor, hardship and extreme poverty.

The scene was Bangalore where I sat cross-legged on the floor of a bungalow in Cubbon Park in December 2006. The speakers were children, mostly orphans, who gathered from around the region for a “confluence” and a celebration of their freedom from bonded labor, which is common in India and Asian countries. Figures vary but estimates put the number of working children in India at 127 million, and 246 million around the world.

With this declaration, I felt my resolve to help them and to support the arts strengthened like never before. In this dimension, art is not merely for the enjoyment of the privileged few or upper class, it is a springboard to a better life, and to hope, without which we are all doomed.

I remember marveling at how pure and guileless these children were, most of them from the streets where they’ve had to steal and struggle to survive. One of my favorite boys, Satish (for whom I purchased a new prosthetic leg last year with the help of a great organization, ALTSO, that organizes prosthetic limbs for children in third world countries), stunned me one afternoon by offering me the measly portion of chicken he’d been served at lunch, the only meat any of us had seen all week. Joyfully and without hesitation, he came over to me and thrust this (to him) rare treat onto my plate, a gift to me. I was stunned, and immediately gave it back to him, along with all of MY chicken.

I mentioned this later to Dr. Fred, an Australian doctor and volunteer at the Bangalore conference. He said something that stayed with me. Most of these children are malnourished. But the important thing, he said, is that they have stimulation. Any of them could easily outlive all of us, despite their poor diets, as long as they have stimulation (which the art school provides). Without this, from his years of experience helping in such situations, they die like flies.

This is just one more compelling reason (as if we needed it) to provide art to children. Before coming to Bangalore, I confess I didn’t realize how powerful art could be, much as I love it. It’s no substitute for food and shelter of course, but Dr. Fred’s words confirm yet again how vital a creative outlet is, especially for impoverished children. Looked at another way, for them it gives hope.

To read more about my report from Bangalore, click here.
For photos of the children and my first trip to India, click here.

In the U.S., most of us live lives of comparative luxury. Luxury is having a job (or at least prospects for one), a roof over one’s head and food to eat. We have access to good medical care and education. With all its warts and flaws, America is still the greatest country in the world. People still flock here from every nation for the opportunities and comparative freedom we enjoy.

I have spent my life in love with music, art and culture. These are usually the first programs to be cut in schools, sadly, when they do so much to form and refine young minds. I don’t need to cite the studies and evidence of what music education can do to enhance grades and concentration dramatically, not to mention overall well-roundedness of a person.

But what’s the practical value of art? And what is its duty and social responsibility, if any? I believe great art lifts us up and inspires. This is no small thing, and viewed within the context of bonded labor children who would be dead without it, it’s clear how powerful this can be.

My resolve to promote art and education, especially among children where it is most needed and can literally save lives, has been re-stoked by three things recently:

1. Three Cups of Tea, a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
2. Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winning film
3. A performance of the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra led by Gustavo Dudamel

All three are about lifting people out of poverty with education and art.

What could be better?

Three Cups of Tea

I couldn’t put this book down, it’s about the journey of Greg Mortenson who after a failed attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2 (the world’s second highest peak) in 1983 stumbled into a small village where he was nursed back to health. Upon finding that the village had no school (children scratched their lessons in the dirt with sticks), he made a promise to build one. In spite of an armed kidnapping, fatwas issued by mullahs, death threats, and long separations from his family, he succeeded. At an uncertain time and in a dangerous place (post-911 Pakistan and Afghanistan) when pro-American sentiment was thin on the ground, he has built 78 schools. Inspiring and highly recommended. Please read this book immediately.

Slumdog Millionaire

This is the only one among the many nominated films I’ve seen so far and I was thrilled that it took home 8 Oscars this week. Given my own experience in India working with bonded labor children there, I was especially glad for the attention given to the plight of children in that country. Also excellent is that Indian composer A.R. Rahman got his due (he’s sold millions of records in his home country). Congratulations to all who made this film possible.

What I didn’t like was alleged underpayment of the child actors in the film. Studio reps claim that this “rumor” was a smear campaign launched by major film studios who were jealous of the attention and huge critical acclaim the film received. Could be, but I would appreciate hearing any relevant details from readers who may know more.

And this raises the question, what is the duty of art, what is its responsibility (if any)? Film makers make films, should they save lives? If the amount paid to child actors as originally reported is correct, I am incensed. A movie made to shine the light on a social injustice ends up being complicit in that same injustice? I hope not. It would be too depressing.

Reportedly the children’s educations are being paid for by the film makers, and this is a step in the right direction. It IS an excellent film too, well worth watching.

The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra led by Gustavo Dudamel

This performance is powerful and electric, I got chills with each repeated listen. The X Factor here is that these musicians have been brought out of poverty with music and now shine on a stage. This is real. Music is a life raft and a springboard to get themselves out of slums and into opportunity. I was glued to my monitor for over an hour watching the performance over and over, then listening to Jose Antonio Abreu’s speech (not bad for someone with the attention span of a parakeet).

The orchestra is led by Gustavo Dudamel. He and the young members of the orchestra, many born into poverty, have had their lives transformed by a national music-teaching program built by Abreu.

Abreu founded El Sistema (“the system”) in 1975 to help poor Venezuelan kids learn to play a musical instrument and be part of an orchestra. Thirty years later, El Sistema has seeded 102 youth orchestras – and many happy lives. It is life-changing in the best possible way.

El Sistema uses music education to help kids from impoverished circumstances achieve their full potential and learn values that support their growth. Several El Sistema students have gone on to major international careers, including Gustavo Dudamel, new Musical Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the bassist Edicson Ruiz, who at 17 became the youngest musician ever to join the Berlin Philharmonic.

For Abreu, an orchestra is about togetherness, a place where children learn to listen to each other and to respect one another. “Music has to be recognized as an … agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values — solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.”

Kudos to Abreu, congratulations to Dudamel and most of all a standing ovation to each of those brilliant musicians who are on their way to better lives in partnership with music.

The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra is led here by Gustavo Dudamel, playing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement, and Arturo Márquez’ Danzón No. 2. Please listen now. The performance was transmitted at the recent TED2009 conference, where the attendees leapt to their feet for a standing ovation. Thanks to TED for its recognition and support for this kind of thing.

Ideas worth spreading indeed.

Jose Antonio Abreu’s speech


The duty of art can be argued, but our responsibility to one another cannot. I believe those of us fortunate to have education and opportunity must do our utmost to spread it to those less fortunate.

Long ago when I became frustrated with the many problems in the world reported every day, I wondered what I could possibly do to that would be useful and meaningful. Endless need, where to begin? So I decided to focus my efforts in two areas: education and children. When children are given hope, education and access to opportunity, and especially when they are given access to art and the many possibilities this opens up for them, this raises them up to create a better society here and around the world.

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