Can art really change the world?

The first few strokes were clumsy, the sound not quite connected. My fingers timidly attempted to find their place on the neck of my instrument, only too aware of the reverence of the moment. As the sound started resonating against my chest and in the room around me, I remember feeling something that felt out of this world. My cello, Bach’s music and myself. We became one. The familiar notes and phrases I had listened to so many times and knew by heart. I was now the one bringing them to life.

I started playing the cello as a child, and it wasn’t uncommon for family members to ask me to play something at functions or dinners. sometimes I loved it. Sometimes I hated it. It really depended on whether I had any performance-ready piece in my repertoire. But regardless of how I felt, I remember thinking my cello held magical powers. When I played, everyone would stop and listen. Expressions on the faces would soften for a moment, there would be no argument, all was peace and beauty (if you’ll excuse the occasional slip). Then the mundane comments about who was going to do the dishes or walk the dog would resume. I think that’s when I first felt it deep within me.

Art has transformative powers.

"Can art really change the world?" Picture of Marie Kenny playing the cello on stage

Over the years, I have played for weddings, funerals, at the bedside of sick people, for absent-minded passers-by in the street, for audiences on stage, for children who cried when “the cello sounded sad”, for difficult juries at auditions and exams and even for unforgiving cows in a field. I have played in different countries, at different ages, in different circumstances. On every occasion though, I know I would have touched at least one person.

That’s because Art anchors us deep into our bodies while transporting us out of space and time.

Art brings unsaid stories and unexpressed feelings to life. Art starts conversations and tickles minds. Art tries to make sense of the world around us, the world within us and shine a spotlight on the human condition.

“The act of making art exposes a society to itself. Art brings things to light. It illuminates us. It sheds light on our lingering darkness. It casts a beam into the heart of our own darkness and says, ‘See?’ “ Julia Cameron

This is why I work with artists.

I wholeheartedly believe that artists can drive meaningful change in the world and spark all sorts of magical things around them through their work.

Even if they don’t quite believe it yet.

Olafur Eliasson explains it best: “The encounter with art – and with others over art – can help us identify with one another, expand our notions of we, and show us that individual engagement in the world has actual consequences. That’s why I hope that in the future, art will be invited to take part in discussions of social, political, and ecological issues even more than it is currently and that artists will be included when leaders at all levels, from the local to the global, consider solutions to the challenges that face us in the world today.

The Bach Project

Since that very first attempt at interpreting Bach’s Cello Suites, they have been a constant musical companion of mine. When I listen to them, my body becomes hollow, just like the body of my cello. It turns into a cathedral of sound, resonance and meaning. With every note, my bones resonates like the pillars of an invisible structure that hold nothing but the voice of truth. Very early on, I felt that Bach’s music speaks to our very humanity, transcends language and as such, is universal.

So when I found out about Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project, my heart jumped. The maestro will be going on a tour of 36 concerts and 36 days of action across 6 continents (including Cape Town!), during which he will be playing Bach’s Suites for Cello and facilitating conversations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.

I welled up watching the project’s video. It starts with these words:

“Culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – can bind us together as one world.” Yo-yo Ma

I felt like it illustrates exactly why I do what I do:

Empower artists to manifest their highest creative potential so that they can bring beauty, unity and spark change around them.

So can art really change the world? I’m sure we can all agree that it is a rather complex question that involves taking into account privilege and both the access to and broadcasting of art.

But projects such as these show me that artists really can have an impact on the world around them. It shows me that when we embrace our own creative urges, we connect to the best parts of ourselves, we allow our creative life force to move freely and we start thinking beyond individual gain.

I feel that it answers the question I was asked just last night: “Why would artists need coaching?”

Because there is nothing more powerful than a self-actualised, free and unleashed artist.

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