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The Social Impact of Argument Art

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A few weeks and 68 years ago thousands of innocent people felt their skin melting off their body. They wandered around with arms outstretched -- a scene described by historians as Zombie-like -- because it cooled the burning. Charred babies writhed on barren grounds and people screamed with pain or laughed with madness. August 6, 1945. Little Boy, the world's first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima and changed the face of humanity. And the humanities.

Three days later, husband and wife Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki visited Hiroshima and were so disturbed by what they saw that they spent the next 30 years painting in an attempt to make an argument in favor of universal peace for all human beings. The result was the now famous Hiroshima Panels.

The panels sparked international conversations on peace and in 1995 Iri and Toshi were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. To this day, the piece of argument art continues to be meditated on, studied, talked about and held up as an example of art's social power.

Though it can be argued that all art is argument art, there's no denying it: all argument art is not created equal. Some from the very beginning take a particular stance and, through the creative layering process, are able to make something both immediately relevant and sustainable. Take a few lines from Macklemore's Same Love:

The right-wing conservatives think it's a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don't know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago

The lyrics themselves aren't anything impressive, but their relevancy was accompanied by a personality, a network, a movement and a high-quality video that was able to go viral, rack up 70 million views and -- more importantly -- push the progressive argument further.

Such argument art also helps others find solace in or rethink their own beliefs. It enables us to speak with more confidence about an argument we believe because we've been given words or images that resonated. Likewise, art has long inspired and appealed to the youth -- those more malleable minds who are soon-to-be influentials.

There's the AIDS Memorial Quilt Project -- a piece of argument art so powerful that NGOs tackling other infectious diseases, such as those working to eradicate malaria, always wish for an equivalent. There's the digitized painting called "Mona Lisa 2013" I saw last week in Seoul whereby a lush garden forest was slowly blasted to blackened dirt by what look to be drones. The final result was an imprint of Mona Lisa's face. And to get back to text, there's slam poet Taylor Mali whose What Teacher's Make poem has reached nearly 5 million views and has helped many teachers, this one included, not only shape sharper arguments about the importance of teachers but do so at universities where the Poet-in-Residence teaching position is increasingly becoming extinct while scientists in the same building receive $200,000 to truly get to the bottom of it: Which diaper holds the most urine?

Notice how Mali sets the stage for the argument in the opening lines:

He says the problem with teachers is
What's a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?
He reminds the other dinner guests that it's true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his

Research continues to prove that the growing mindfulness/empathy movement -- from thinkers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Roman Krznaric -- is worth studying and worth implementing into our classrooms and into our lives if we truly want to create a more peaceful world. And wouldn't you know it? We've got a growing body of argument artists and empathy makers right under our noses.

Mark Edmundson's controversial piece in Harper's titled Poetry Slam, Or, The Decline of American Verse lit into the world of contemporary poetry through a rather closed perspective. The article generated a wave of responses, including those from poet and literary critic Seth Abramson who said that 20,000 young poets receive graduates degrees in poetry every decade.

Twenty-thousand. And that's just MFA poetry students -- to say nothing of the many other art forms under the MFA umbrella, or the many brilliant artists without any formal schooling whatsoever.

Allen Ginsberg once spoke of "Bare knuckle warrior poetics," and according to the late Janine Pommy Vega, he spoke through a social justice lens and meant "...you hit the ground running, you see what it is and you do something about it. What is going to be your role there? You're there. You're there to see it. So get busy."

May our artists always keep this in mind as they pursue their craft and push their work to new and greater and more meaningful levels.