art as civil defence

The old colonial church of San Francisco with its high red plastered bell tower served as my landmark on the always-busy Alameda — Santiago,…

The old colonial church of San Francisco with its high red plastered bell tower served as my landmark on the always-busy Alameda — Santiago, Chile’s Main Street.

When I got there I knew that I had only a block more to walk. After a day scurrying from appointment to appointment, I looked forward to the peace afforded by the quiet, slightly dowagerly Residential Londres tucked in behind it.

It didn’t take me long to agreeably settle into this very modestly priced pension. It was central to the myriad government offices and agencies whose staffs were slowly giving me an idea of the richness and depth of Chilean expertise and experience in meeting the housing needs of its citizens.

And besides the hot té con leche they served me every morning with a buttered biscuit and jam started my days off just right.

When I look back on the time that I spent there in 1970, I wish, though, that I hadn’t been so preoccupied with my work.

Just out the door and down the curving street no more than a block away there was a peña, a folk music club. The New Chilean Song movement was inspiring a generation of artists like Victor Jara whom I might have heard live.

I wouldn’t really become familiar with their music until after I was back in Canada.

“The cultural invasion is like a leafy tree, which prevents us from seeing our own sun, sky and stars,” was the way Victor Jara described the threat that inspired their artistic and political activism as recorded in Victor: An Unfinished Song written by his wife Joan Jara.

“Therefore in order to be able to see the sky above our heads, our task is to cut this tree off at the roots.”

Victor Jara and many other activists died in the National Stadium in the first days of the brutal US backed Pinochet dictatorship in September of 1973.

In 2003 the stadium was renamed Estadio Victor Jara.

Artists have always had a role in calling us out of our complacency but they also can offer us a vision of the way the world should be.

This challenge is needed now more than ever.

“Modernity imagined that it would be enough to abolish absolute monarchy and privileged classes, the clergy and nobility, in order to establish the reign of justice,” Jose Comblin, a theologian and social advocate who lives and works in Brazil writes.

In the Latin Agenda for 2007 he says that new forces of domination quickly emerged that “learned the art of manipulation of democratic institutions as instrument for their growing power.

“There is no democracy without power,  power that must be taken away from today’s feudal lords,” Comblin tells us.

The arts can become a way and a means of civil defence against the powers that be.

They can also offer us hope.

“Let’s keep on singing together, let’s sing to every man on earth … my song is a song of freedom” — from Victor Jara’s Canto libre.

Mitch Miyagawa’s new play Carnaval opens at Raven Recycling Wednesday, May 16th and runs through May 26th.

Tickets are available at Arts Underground.