Channeling Violence


Pedro Reyes creates instruments out of confiscated weapons

The news from Ferguson and New York, coming on the 50th anniversary of the peace-minded marches in Selma, raised our alarm over America’s problem with violence. Right now many of us are wondering if clashes between police and the poor will spread, questioning the strength of our social networks to absorb deep feelings of frustration and rage provoked by these vignettes of injustice.

Reading French economist Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music over the holidays, I was reminded of the power of music as a substitute for violence. The essay, written in 1977, is eerily prescient on a number of fronts regarding the evolution of music’s role in Western culture. Looking at Brueghel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent as a lens onto a crucial moment in 16th century Europe, when the church assumed political dominance over polytheistic folk cultures, he argues music’s role as a “political channeler of and substitute for the general violence.”

bruegel-13This painting is often read as an allegory of human diversity and acceptance of difference. In the messiness and chaos of society, it will be important to identify which actions, which noises, will boil over into violence, and which will sustain the tenuous peace.


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