'Gift of beauty' brought hope to Sao Paulo slum
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
The past couple of columns have pointed to the role of beauty in conflict resolution and social restoration, with particular reference to the statement, "The world will be saved by beauty."
I am honoured this week to share a response from one of our coffee companions who is an international expert on the subject.
Glen Eyford founded the Department of Development Studies at the University of Alberta. Retired now and living in Cochrane, he put into writing for us an experience especially close to his heart that illustrates the role beauty played in helping restore dignity to slum dwellers in one of the most despairing places in the world.
The following is part of what he wrote us. (His entire letter is appended at the end of this column.)
THANKS, GLEN, for this account.
Although Cochrane is anything but a slum area, our town also understands the importance of performance beauty for community spirit. The August 7 Heritage Day celebration at the Cochrane Ranche Historic Site is a good example.
Entertainment by local musicians and the National Army Cadet Pipes and Drum Band provided an uplifting backdrop for the old-fashioned family events and petting zoo. Thank you, organizers and performers, for your gift of beauty to Cochrane.
[The following is the entire letter we received from Glen Eyford. It was abbreviated for space reasons in the print edition.]
Some years ago the Beatles sang "All you need is love," and millions of people around the world were touched by its message. Love is always needed, always in short supply but it’s not enough. Even more desperately needed is a sense for beauty for the good, the true and the beautiful. There is little around us, or within us, that is beautiful.
We are inundated every day be images of war, disaster, death, starvation, crime, racism, grief and misery. Each day on our way to work we are exposed to ugliness strip malls, big box markets, big box office buildings and apartments, thousands of crowded cookie-cutter houses, shapeless factories and warehouses. We must reconsider what Blake, the English poet, said: "We become what we behold," which was rephrased by a famous urban planner, Mumford: "We make our cities, and our cities make us." It would seem that the only bit of beauty we have left is Nature itself, to which we had nothing to contribute, but which we are now destroying.
Beauty affects everyone powerfully because it reaches us not through logic or reason, but through a special faculty in our nature, the aesthetic (i.e., that which responds to beauty), or some would say the soul (the sign of God within us). If we remain unmoved in that region of our consciousness, our total life is impoverished. Beauty touches the spirit and guides the soul.
Plato said the formula for creating a great civilization was to surround its citizens with beauty and art in all its forms: music, sculpture, theatre, rhetoric, painting, dance, festivals, all of which would feed our soul our aesthetic sensibilities and imbue in us the elements of art as it creates an appetite for the true, the good, the beautiful, and a repulsion from the ugly: the untrue, the shoddy, and the incomplete. Unfortunately, Plato never had time to implement his ideas into his dream of a new Republic. Nevertheless, his ideas have lived on, most recently in the writings of the educational philosopher John Dewey, who maintained that aesthetics should be the core of any curriculum.
What is beauty? Some will say it is in the eye of the beholder, which tells us little; others will say that you will know it when you see it, which does little better. And the poet Keats says simply: "Truth is Beauty, Beauty is Truth that is all ye know and all ye need to know" poetic, but not much more information. Maybe the mother of Forrest Gump would have said it better: "Beauty is what Beauty does."
Many communities around the world have employed beauty in its many art forms to promote community development, especially through drama, street theatre, pageants, music, film, murals. One of the best known examples of the power of beauty to motivate, inspire and uplift people occurred in Sao Paulo, Brazil, about 20 years ago. This city is one of the most populous in the world. In its slums there is no water, no electricity, no food sources, no law or order just hopelessness, despair, illness and grief. It is entirely neglected, no food for the body or for the soul.
A group of citizens surrounding the slum district decided that they must do something with and for the people. After reviewing the options, such as food parcels, clothing packages, they realized those acts of charity were not always appreciated, because they were short term and had no sustaining value. They decided something different was required, something longer-lasting, something serving all the people. They decided on something which had never taken place there before: a Festival of the Arts. It would be provided free of charge in the main square of the district, but they needed permission from the local governing council. They met with the council, outlined their plans for a day-long event including indigenous music and dancing, popular soloists from Sao Paulo and elsewhere, murals and paintings, and folk poetry. The council was hesitant, concerned about crowd control, mischief, even riots. The citizens group assured them all of that would be looked after by their own volunteers. As well, they would provide toilets, fresh water and medical aid. The council approved it.
The day was agreed upon and everything proceeded. Advertisements went everywhere by radio, T.V. and numerous street posters, while excitement grew. Members of the public were skeptical because they thought this was merely some cleverly-arranged political rally or religious gathering. They were assured it would be non-sectarian, non-political, free to all, no alcohol or drugs permitted.
By 9 a.m. the day it began, thousands of people had assembled and by the time it concluded at 10 p.m., it was estimated about 45,000 people had turned out. Their appreciation throughout was boisterous and joyous, and they formally expressed their thanks for this wonderful gift and asked if it could happen again. The day passed without incident, surprising and delighting the members of the council.
The council asked the sponsors to meet with them the next day, which they did with some trepidation, fearing that there had been some difficulty. The council greeted them with great enthusiasm, and their remarks were simple and gracious: "We want to express to you our heartfelt thanks for your gift of beauty to our community. It will last forever for all of us."
The government authorities subsequently agreed to sponsor with the citizens group a festival each year in different parts of the city.
Glen Eyford, Ph.D., Cochrane, Alta.
© 2006 Warren Harbeck