The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 25, 2021 1:00 am

Art's subtle superpower

'Beauty out of pain' unleashes responses traditional media cannot

Minali Aggarwal

In 2008, Kelli Dillon was sterilized in a California state prison without her consent.

She was only 24 years old and had just arrived in prison with a 15-year sentence after defending herself and her two young children against her abusive husband. Though she knew her situation was unjust, she was determined to get through her sentence and get a second chance at love, romance and motherhood.

But when she was sterilized without her knowledge, the dream of a second chance at being a mother was stripped away from her just as quickly as the first.

Shortly after arriving at Central California Women's Facility, Dillon went to the doctor with painful abdominal cramps. The doctors told her they would need to do a procedure to check for abnormal cells and perform a hysterectomy in the event she had cancer.

After the procedure, Dillon stopped having her period and started experiencing menopausal symptoms. After fighting for six months to obtain her medical records, she found out that she not only never had cancer, but that she had been sterilized against her will and would never be able to have children again.

I learned about Dillon's story through Erika Cohn's beautiful and heartbreaking documentary, “Belly of the Beast.” I knew about California's dark history with eugenics, but witnessing Dillon's brave and vulnerable account of her personal experience broke down the intellectualization with how we so often consume and engage with current and historical events.

It's no doubt others felt the same way after watching the film; within a year of its release, the documentary helped garner more than 20,000 signatures on a petition to demand California pay reparations to the survivors of forced sterilization.

And the mobilization worked; on July 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law to create the Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program to pay reparations to survivors.

Learning about this historic organizing victory has made me reflect on the importance of art in social justice work.

Film, visual art, interviews, personal essays, photography, music and other forms of art trigger our emotions and provoke action in a way that news and numbers cannot. We have seen mainstream media focus increasingly on profit, optimizing for clicks instead of conveying important information and telling truthful stories.

Additionally, politics has become more about what's passable with bipartisan support than doing what is right. This is not to say that politicians should not pick low-hanging fruit, but it begs the question: Who represents the people who are made invisible in society?

Maybe it's easy for some to ignore the plight of the 1,400 women affected by these state-sanctioned atrocities when they read about it in passing, or when the women's stories are contextualized as a number in the mere thousands compared to other issues that affect millions.

But passivity and apathy become much harder when you are forced to engage with personal accounts like Kelli Dillon's.

Whether artists intend to be political, their work reflects the reality in which we all exist. They have a unique ability to make us see things differently, to see pain and suffering with more beauty, to imagine a better future.

In fact, that's what makes artists so important. They actually have the power to create beauty out of pain.

Take the murals that were painted after the George Floyd protests last summer, for example. Following the protests, 100 local artists painted murals on boarded-up businesses across downtown Fort Wayne to help residents cope with the pain they were feeling, support conversations about racism in the city and share visions for a better future. The artists came together with a vision to create something that shifted public attention away from negativity and destruction and toward positivity and hope.

The focus on creating an emotional shift rather than a mental one is an artist's superpower – it's what allows a message to be received.

Minali Aggarwal, a Fort Wayne resident, is a mixed-media artist and doctoral student at Yale University.

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