A few days ago I was doing final souvenir shopping in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. In the back of a tiny shop in Kuching’s Main Bazaar (see the bustling street scene, above), I found a lovely gentleman selling art objects made by the indigenous Iban tribe. The proprietor, who went by Nick, was enthusiastic as he showed one-of-a-kind statues, masks, and other hand made pieces that had magical significance to his people. At one point he realized that I was American, and stopped. “Oh, I am so sorry about Michael Jackson!” he cried, “He was part of my life.”
So even in remote Borneo, a few degrees above the Equator, surrounded by shamanic treasures, the long arm of popular culture was firmly entwined. It’s accepted to deride pop culture and globalization as a destroyer of local customs and a debaser of conversation, but globalization in our “flattened” world also has the capacity to bring people together and to spread understanding. Today’s problems, including climate change, require a global will and global action to counter the divisions between “developed” and less developed nations, as we’re seeing with this week’s G-8 meeting.
There are music and visual artists whose work encompasses the problems facing the earth today (and I’d love to be pointed to a resource that keeps track of them…anyone?), but to my knowledge we have not yet found the breakout song about global warming or an iconic biodiversity poster. Art has the capacity to engage hearts and minds better than anything–even blogs?!–and to touch people profoundly, near and far. How can we encourage more artists to take up the big causes of today and help us all create a better tomorrow?