Art That Moves You: David Lester’s “The Listener”

The power of art should never be underestimated. All works of art, regardless of their form as mediated expression, offer a message to those that contemplate them. Some works of art are conceived as more deliberate acts of communication with specific intentions. Others allow room for nuance interpretation. Art can inspire to kill for social change and it can inspire to risk death for social change. Without question, art is a potent tool for societal inspiration.

Leni Riefenstahl’s film Victory of Faith documents the Nazi Party’s 1933 Fifth Party Rally in Nuremberg and her later Triumph of the Will was made at the Nazi Party’s 1934 Nuremberg congress. Both indisputable examples of how the power of art can move an entire population to commit collective murder on the scale of the Holocaust. Riefenstahl’s films represent the art of manipulation, preying on popular anxiety for the purposes of deliberate and exacting propaganda for political gain and popular domination.

Other artistic initiatives like the abstract sculptures as created by The Listener‘s protagonist, Louise Shearing, leave more room for interpretation, yet with their own deadly consequences. Vann, a young Cambodian doctor turned activist, was profoundly affected by her first political sculpture of French feminist Louise Michel. As the graphic novel’s foil character, Vann provides the contrast that moves the protagonist forward. He is the mirror within which the protagonist can see herself and which allows the central character to evolve. This literary and narrative tool is perfectly embodied in Chapter 12.

Detail of page 272 from the graphic novel, The Listerner by David Lester by David Lester © 2011

In this climactic chapter, Walter, a Holocaust survivor and close friend of Vann, visits Louise to tell her more about the young Cambodian genocide survivor, who, until viewing Louise’s sculpture, wondered why artists were so important to eradicate. Walter tells Louise, “Art held a fascination for [Vann] because very few Cambodian artists survived the genocide.” He continues, “… your art inspired Vann, but it was his decision to act in the way that he did. Just as you interpret history and make art, he interpreted your art to make history.”

The Listener begins with Vann’s inspired act of corporate defiance which ultimately cost him his life. It continues with Louise’s existential angst as she travels through Europe, visiting its museums and art galleries, meeting its residents and seeking sources of inspiration to fill the void that ensued after learning about Vann’s death and the role her art had in it. She listens to stories about the second world war and the Nazi propaganda machine told to her by Marie and Rudolph, who greatly influence the conceptualization of her latest sculpture that ends the narrative, a larger than life work about Nestor Ivanovych Makhno, the Ukranian anarcho-communist guerrilla.

Page 17 from the graphic novel, The Listerner by David Lester © 2011

Art inspires art. It is often inspired by memory and is a reminder of the past. Art is also about history and its transformation through imaginative conceptualization by the artist and inspired contemplation by the observer, who may be roused toward grotesque acts of brutality or who may, preferably, be moved to perform exceptional acts of bravery.

Montreal anarchist poet, Norman Nawrocki expresses the role of art which is appropriately quoted in the book, “Spread the word, write it, sing it, shout it out, whisper it, type it, paint it, draw it, dance it, jiggle it, shake it up and down … don’t be afraid, experiment, practice, agitate, organize, resist … do something intelligent, somewhere, something new and exciting that will bring us one step closer to where we all want to go: a healthy planet, without exploiters and exploited, here and now.” I’m sure this is what Vann had in mind.

I readily add David Lester’s The Listener to my graphic novel collection and place it appropriately beside Jason Lutes’ Berlin: City of Stones.

This review will appear in the next issue of the Fifth Estate.

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