The Value of Art is Difficult Times

I wrote and shared the following thoughts with my students on the afternoon April 15, 2013, following the news of the Boston Marathon Bombings. Lately I’ve been thinking how these words continue to be true.

In the face of terrible things both here domestically and abroad, of all that works to promote cruelty and fear, that threatens peace and kindness in this world, I am reminded of the following experience of the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet.

In January 1938, Hikmet was arrested for inciting the Turkish armed forces to revolt and sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison on the grounds that military cadets were reading his poems, particularly The Epic of Sheik Bedrettin. 

His friend Pablo Neruda relates Hikmet’s account of how he was treated after his arrest:

“Accused of attempting to incite the Turkish navy into rebellion, Nazım was condemned to the punishments of hell. The trial was held on a warship. He told me he was forced to walk on the ship’s bridge until he was too weak to stay on his feet, then they stuck him into a section of the latrines where the excrement rose half a meter above the floor. My brother poet felt his strength failing him: my tormentors are keeping an eye on me, they want to watch me suffer. His strength came back with pride. He began to sing, low at first, then louder, and finally at the top of his lungs. He sang all the songs, all the love poems he could remember, his own poems, the ballads of the peasants, the people’s battle hymns. He sang everything he knew. And so he vanquished the filth and his torturers”

—quoted in the Introduction of the Selected Poetry of Nazim Hikmet,
translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk

We have two choices—we always have two choices—we can sink into despair and annihilation, or we can stand, even when we are exhausted, and sing—speak with our full voice all that poetry and song can muster, all that it declares of our humanity, our ability to hope beyond fear, to love beyond hate, to rise above all that would tear us down or apart.

There is no darkness that cannot be broken, no sadness that cannot at last find an end, if we do not give up and do not give in. If we are willing to open our mouths and our hearts. Write. Speak. Sing. Make beauty and love the banner under which you stand. Raise it high and draw all you can under it. When we sing, we sing not just for ourselves, but for all those yet silent, who are waiting for someone to begin.

The portrait of Nazim Hikmet at the top of this post was painted by Ibrahim Balaban. There’s an interesting story here too that I did not know until I came across the painting and started digging a little into its history.

“During his time at Bursa Prison, he met Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet Ran, who was serving a ten-year sentence for the political content of his poetry. Hikmet, who used to paint in the prison, discovered Balaban’s talent and gave all his paint and brushes to him, encouraging Balaban to continue with painting. During the prison years, Balaban was influenced by Hikmet, 20 years his senior, whom he called the “Poet Daddy” (Turkish: Şair Baba). Hikmet helped Balaban to form his own ideas in the fields of philosophy, sociology, economics, and politics. In a letter to the novelist Kemal Tahir, Hikmet wrote about his admiration for Balaban, calling him “my peasant painter” (Turkish: Köylü ressam). They stayed in contact with each other after they were released.”

— “Ibrahim Balaban,” Wikipedia article

Sometimes it is in the midst of the worst of things that we discover our true friends and heroes. I love how Hikmet, having found a friend who had great talent, gave him all his own tools (brushes and paint), and encouraged him to keep painting. Resistance means more than just standing at each other’s side. It means equipping and preparing each other to be our best selves, sharing knowledge, hope, and courage. Kindling in each other the fierce light of what may yet be.