Art is important. I recently had an opportunity to hear Albie Sachs speak about his experiences working for justice in South Africa during the era of Apartheid. Sachs is an engaging speaker, and his entire talk held my interest. Yet, it was while not speaking that he moved me to tears.
Imprisonment was among the first punitive repercussions Sachs endured for his work towards ending Apartheid. Placed in solitary confinement with no information as to why he was being held or how long he would be so detained, Sachs invented ways to pass the time. His methods included listing various items in alphabetical order: U.S. States, popular songs, etc. While relating this part of his story, Sachs, in a clear, sprightly tenor, broke out into his own parodied version of an Irving Berlin tune:
I’ll be living here – always.
In this little cell – always.
Not for just an hour; not for just a day; not for 90 days, but always.
That’s when I started to tear up, and not just because this man had used art to keep himself human in the midst of inhuman conditions. Also because he had used that same art to effectively communicate his experience to me. I listened with interest to his entire speech, but the moment Sachs began to sing, he evoked more than my interest – he evoked my empathy.
Next time I’m in a conversation about whether art is too esoteric to count for much, I’m going to think of Albie and Irving.