The Cup The Knife The Coat The Remedy
This is a text which a friend of mine sent a year or so back. Read half of it (never got around to reading it all since it's quite lengthy) but whatever I've gone through till now is extremely interesting and thought provoking. Definately, worth a read.
the cup the knife the coat the remedy - http://chriscaines.com/?p=98
Published by adminon February 14, 2008
I was once driving late at night across New England when I heard a lecture on the radio by Jeanette Winterson talking about the importance of fiction. It was so compelling I had to pull over to give it my full attention. She has a talent for expressing the essentials of the creative enterprise & why you would be involved that no-one I’ve heard or read seems to share. This is the full text of a talk about the importance of Art that she gave in Utrecht this past December.
BELLE VAN ZUYLEN LECTURE BY JEANETTE WINTERSON
the Cup, the Knife, the Coat, the Remedy
December 13, 2007
I called this lecture the Cup, the Knife, the Coat, the Remedy, so that I could talk about 4 simple, practical ways in which art is relevant to the way we live now – relevant to a world confronting climate change and faith wars. Relevant to a world where the super- rich are beyond the reach of political upheavals in their own countries, or any country, and where the poor have no hope of politics changing anything – at least for them. Ours is a world where Google is valued at 200billion dollars, and the Amazon rainforest is valued at nothing at all.
In a world like this, art is not a luxury, if a luxury is something we can do without. Art is essential equipment for the task of being human.
Does that sound like a big claim? Well, Marx said that Socialism was necessary to provide for Man’s animal needs so that Man could get on with the job of providing for his human needs. That’s an important distinction, and a profound one.
I often hear people – good clever interesting people – complain that finding money and time for art is almost decadent in a world where people are starving or homeless, made refugees, or helpless in the grip of war or disaster. But art cannot solve Man’s animal needs – that really is the job of politics, and it is politics at its most basic, even though we seem completely incapable of it. What art can do and does do, is engage with our human needs – those imaginative, emotional, spiritual and philosophic yearnings that ask the big questions about purpose and destiny, about love, self-sacrifice, ambition, desire, suffering.
Human beings seek meaning. We seek meaning beyond our immediate goals, beyond personal ambition, even beyond love. In the past we have called this search for meaning, God. The Enlightenment called it Perfectibility. The nineteenth century called it Progress. Science searches for a Grand Unified Theory of Everything. Only in very recent times has a society been as gross as ours, and called it money. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. Well, no, in fact, it’s not.
Art does not propose to supply life’s meaning, any more than it claims to solve life’s problems – it has neither religion’s certainty nor science’s arrogance. Art doesn’t chant the mantra of social progress, nor is money its aim, or even in its sights, whatever Damian Hirst tells you – or Courbet. When in doubt, trust the art nor the artist.
Art is a means, but not a means to an end. There is no final solution.
I believe that art fulfils a different role in different times – sometimes it is there to expose and explode – sometimes it is there to unite and heal. Sometimes art is all questions, sometimes it seems to have a few answers.
At all times though, it provides a basic kit for life. Don’t leave home without it.
There’s a theory of human understanding that says: ‘Human beings do not need to be instructed, they need to be reminded.’ In other words – we don’t need to be told how to live – we need to be reminded how to live; we don’t need to be told what is valuable; we need to be reminded of what is valuable.
Laments on the breakdown of family life in the West often include the fact that if we don’t pass things on, generationally, those things are lost forever, or must be painfully re-won. Culturally, the human race is facing a future where each generation will have to re-invent its own wheel. This may suit short-term consumerism and the cynics who love to promote the new new thing, so that they can keep making money, but the throw-away mentality of late capitalism is hitting every aspect of human interaction; people don’t value their friends or their partners – you can get a new wife, list your hundreds of new friends on FaceBook. Companies offer short contracts, not job security, universities don’t offer tenure. Experience is not valued in a society that is always moving on. Buildings are thrown up and torn down, ‘progress’, so called, bulldozes familiar streets and squares, tears roads and runways through fields and mountains. The only check to all this is that belatedly, and just recently, we have realised that we can’t have a new new planet.
I have called art a cup, because art is able to contain the moving liquid that is life. To contain it without halting it, and to hold it dear – to say that it is worth holding dear, when everything around us is shouting for what next.
Art recognises our experiences – even the most trivial thing is the stuff of art – Matisse paints a saucepan or an apple – James Joyce records one single day in the life of an ordinary man. Art is not looking for the next celebrity story – art is working on this story, yours and mine, giving shape and form to our experiences, guarding them for us, and finding a way of holding safe the swirling, often volatile, nature of our emotions – who doubts that love is a hazardous liquid? – and giving us the chance to keep in our hands what would otherwise spill away.
Art is a formal pause in the relentless and chaotic flow of events – it allows contemplation and reflection, and like the Cup at the Last Supper, or the cup that is the Holy Grail, art has a sacred quality to it, in that it hallows our lives as something valuable, not expendable – the dignity of the individual, not his or her credit card number in a vast machine of getting and spending.
I have said that art is practical.
A cup is a necessity– as anyone who has ever tried to drink from a sieve will know.
For me, most of what we call popular culture now, is like a flimsy plastic sieve that is no use for holding anything – the valuable and the worthless alike flow straight through.
We’re told that rubbish TV, Disney, the X-Factor, Dan Brown and Posh Spice, Soap opera, and celebrity torture shows are what people want – it’s democratic. Well, how do people know what they want when they have no choices?
Our education system and our media do nothing to show people what art really is, why it’s important, and why they might want it. What we call popular culture is a fake – imposed on us by those who want to take our money. There’s nothing democratic about it, and there is nothing genuine about it. The fact that art, the real thing, is more and more for the better off and better educated is a disgrace. It’s been left that way because education is inert, the media is philistine, and the big money wants quick bucks.
You could turn to me and say, but Jeanette, isn’t it true that for most of history only the better off or better educated had access to what we think of as high art?
Yes and no. Quite apart from hearing the language of the Bible, which separate to its religious function, was and is a wonderful poetic and narrative resource, peasants and workers alike had their own culture – and it was real because they made it themselves – their own songs, their own folk-art, their own stories. It’s a commonplace that our grandparents or great grandparents generation could play or sing, carve in wood and stone, or tell stories.
Historically, the poorer and more illiterate the people, the more they relied upon their own created culture. They could not be passive, because there was no MTV. They needed the power of story telling and the stimulus of their own music – sure, they weren’t going to the opera, but they weren’t slumped in front of soap opera either.
And – and this is a big and, why on earth haven’t we done something about making art for everyone?
This is the 21st century – art should be part of everyone’s education so that later it can be part of everyone’s lives. How can a young person know what is out there if nobody tells them?
In the false democracy of the West we don’t ban books or burn them – we don’t exile artists, we don’t close the theatres, if we did a lot of people might get the idea that art has something in it for them. Instead we trivialise the arts – call them entertainment, call them luxury, as opposed to the essentials of TV and clone bands. Our censorship of the arts is clever – we call literature ‘elitist’, we call the visual arts ‘specialised’, we call classical music ‘highbrow’, we say that only the middle classes go to theatre and opera. Even people who are supposed to be in charge of education worry about whether the canon of Western art will be too racist, too sexist, too offensive, or just too difficult.
But in all of this, art remains the best way I know of passing on the complexity and value of human experience, generation to generation, across time.
Even to talk about the art of the past is a paradox, because art does not occupy niches of time in the way that we do. If past, present and future are different rooms in the same house, art has the knack of walking through walls.
When I look at Vermeer, I am not anxious to discover the floor tiling and lime wash of a seventeenth century Dutch interior, nor what was eaten at breakfast, or achieved during the rest of the day – I can find all of that in a book or at the museum, and most interesting it is – but it is likely to make me feel the differences between then and now – the changes of habit and understanding. What a Vermeer can give me – simultaneously, is the sense of being inside someone else’s thoughts – a very acute sense of that person’s reality, and an acute sense of my own reality, – parts of my own nature so easily lost in the rush and hazard of the day.
But, you might say – why art and not history? If we don’t want to lose the past, let’s study it. Forget the verse and the oil paintings; let’s have the facts.
Well, of course we should study history, and art has its own history, which should not be neglected. But if history is fact – or a version of the facts, art is memory, the personal place that connects us as people, not simply as observers.
When Picasso painted GUERNICA, there was the fact of the Spanish Civil War, and we can find that in the history books, but Picasso’s response, his shaping of the turbulent and torn emotions of that war – of that betrayal, allows us now, when we stand in front of GUERNICA, to recognise ourselves in the picture – no longer outside an event, understanding it as part of a vanished past, but inside an event, understanding it as part of our past.
The cup is passed from hand to hand.
And it doesn’t matter either – if the subject of the painting is an apple or a saucepan, or a young woman rising from the sea in a shell, what matters is the authenticity of the piece – not faked not manufactured, and with that authenticity comes authority – this really happened, and in some strange way goes on happening, now, right in front of me. Not history – but a personal record that passes out of the purely personal, into the public domain, and by a similar act of magic, becomes a personal record of my own.
The Jews, an artistic and poetic people, as well as people of deep spiritual understanding, know well how potent is personal record, and how culture can be passed on through stories and images. The Feast of the Passover does this beautifully, where down through time, the youngest child asks four questions, beginning with, ‘Why is this night different to all other nights?’
A question about what is different finds its answer in continuity. Art is on this same wave-length – in all its change and diversity, art passes on essential and permanent truths about the human condition. History and memory – what happened, what is understood, what was lost, what is kept, are held in trust generation to generation. A unique record, our record, not a museum – our life.
Not many people, I guess, know much about the Peace of Utrecht, but if I play Handel’s Te Deum, composed especially for the Treaty, a long-gone historical fact is allowed to flow again. The music unlocks the moment – we are not outside – we are inside. Time’s witness, not time’s loss.
CLEAR ALL SLIDES
I do not know if the times that we live in are worse than any other – or better than any other, I only that this is our time, and we have to make the best of it. You can change most things about yourself these days – dye your hair, have a face-lift, take a new name, a new job, a new house, a new country if you want to, even change your gender, or like Michael Jackson, the colour of you skin – but you can’t change the time you live in – this is the hand you have to play.
Better or worse, unique to our time is the amount of information, and mis-information, that comes our way every day. We are the information epoch. Google and Wikipedia, Sky News, CNN 24/7.
But, it’s worth remembering William Carlos Williams words:
It’s hard to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.’
I’ve talked about art as a way of holding onto to our personal and collective experience, now I want to think about art as a sharp and bladed counter-attack to the real dangers of the information epoch. I sometimes feel that art is a hand-cut path through a bewildering jungle of signs and images. Everywhere I turn, the TV or the radio is blaring at me, the billboards are encouraging me to BUY BUY BUY, the daily newspapers are thicker than War and Peace, every single person on the planet is writing a Blog, I type in a word on Google and I get back 10million references.
I am told this is liberating. I am told this is choice. I am told this is being in touch with life. But in all this data, where is the meaning?
The overwhelming characteristic of the Information Age is debasement of language and image.
The obvious example is TV news of war and natural disaster – not the words, the pictures. You know as well as I do that we are not moved anymore by pictures of starving babies and the dead of Iraq.
Perhaps some of you remember when Pathe news broadcast the film reels of survivors being liberated from the concentration camps after the War. Those reels had huge impact; they put an end, almost overnight to the casual anti-semitism that had been a careless feature of Western society. Hitler’s sentiments weren’t odd; his solution was more dramatic, that’s all.
Now, for us, scenes of violence, even torture, are pretty routine. You can download snuff movies; you can watch live beheadings; horror films vie to be as vile as possible. Our news is full of real misery and real sufferings, but we go back in the kitchen, make a cup of tea, forget it. Few of us could stand in front of a child weeping bitterly in the street, a child starving or hurt, which of us would not scoop her up and love her? And which of us really cares when we see the same child on TV?
It isn’t just the misery and pain of the world to which we have become immune – I really don’t want to be in gym at 2pm in the afternoon, forced to watch video after video of soft porn on MTV. I don’t want to have to look away, or pretend that this is fine and normal, because it isn’t fine and normal. I’m not a prude: I just don’t see why I have to watch porn in the gym.
I am told that the reason that porn mags have got more extreme is because everyone gets the ordinary stuff over breakfast dinner lunch and tea now anyway – it runs right the way through popular culture, especially the music business, and advertising. Is this good for our kids? Is it good for you and me?
SLIDE; COURBET. L’origine du Monde.
Look at this: The world’s first crop-shot, painted a hundred years before the Beatles.
This is a slide, so it isn’t at all doing it justice, but I will tell you a story.
I was in the Louvre a couple of weeks ago, to see the Courbet exhibition. This painting was hung discreetly, very discreetly, and in between two other paintings, one of them a landscape. It was as though the curators of the exhibition couldn’t bring themselves to hang it solo, which is what it needs. I suppose they were worried about taste – bit absurd in a world where this would be too tame for the tamest of men’s magazines.
Or is it?
This is a very difficult painting to stand in front of for long. I watched people watching it, and no question, men and women alike, there was difficulty.
Of course it’s about sex, and we would have to acknowledge those feelings in ourselves, male or female, I think. But then, as we stand and let it do its work, we would have to acknowledge so much more; our own ambivalence about the female body; delight, discomfort, and perhaps discovery –that this is a remarkable and beautiful painting, completely unafraid without being prurient.
Why is it art and not soft porn? Well, I would have to ask you to go and look at the original before agreeing or disagreeing with me; but I believe that the distinguishing quality of this painting is not in the eye of the beholder, it is in the painting itself – what has been rendered here is an authentic response to the overwhelming capacity of the female form to rouse in us a multitude of responses – emphatically not one thing – not one way of seeing, but seeing, and feeling, so many things. Porn doesn’t know how to do multi-tasking; art is all multi-tasking. A great deal happens at once. The job of the viewer is to look at the painting honestly, and allow all the contradictory thoughts and feelings it arouses to come to the surface and to speak. Half an hour with this painting – the original, and you will never ever forget it.
What visual art does is to clean the retina. The bombardment of images, degraded and debased, makes it difficult for us to look at anything and actually see it. We look through, we look past, we look away. There is only one thing to do with a painting, or an installation, or a sculpture, and that is to look.
The strange thing about learning to look – or rather re-learning, because small children are very good at looking until TV takes over, is that the eye becomes sharp, sharp as a blade, and those phrases that have become clichés, a keen eye, a sharp eye, a dull eye, a gaze that cuts through us, are suddenly not clichés anymore.
We start to see the world differently, not as an intellectual response, no, I mean actually see it, alive suddenly to ugliness and beauty, repelled by banality instead of habituated to it. The new sight that art allows is like having cataracts removed from both eyes. There is no more blur, no more failure of vision. If our town planners could learn to look at even one single picture, they could never inflict on us the institutionalised banality that they do inflict.
There’s another phrase – SEEING IS BELIEVING – but in our cynical age of doctored shots and trick photography, of straightforward distortion, or simply an afternoon on PhotoShop, we hardly believe anything we see. Look at a work of art and you believe it because it is telling you the truth. Lying may be necessary in real life, but in art it is always a disaster. The painting does not lie, and that in itself, in a world of spin, is a huge relief.
Spin – just as the image is debased in an information culture, so is language. Ours is a mis-information world, where we expect politicians to lie, where we know that armies of lawyers and lifetimes of paperwork are there to prevent anything meaning anything solid – our treaties our UN Resolutions, our government legislation, our European Union directives, are all written so that they are ultimately meaningless. That’s what happened with the UN over Iraq, it’s what has happened in quite a different way with America’s Patriot Act – essentially, it can cover anything they don’t like the look of, now or later.
Tony Blair stood up and lied to the British people about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. On that basis, he took my country to war and destabilised the Middle East. Did he stand trial? No, he did not. He’s now a Middle East Peace Envoy, which, as one of our comedians Rory Bremner said, is like putting a mosquito in charge of malaria.
Alongside the daily lies about what is really going on in the world, there is the relentless dilution, by the media, of language as a rich and organic medium. We are used to sound-bite TV, used to headlines and advertising hoardings. We hand our emotional lives over to the bad dialogue of soap opera actors, and hopeless Hollywood movies. We go for shock sensation and fake responses. We get crummy pop lyrics and sentimental stars telling us how they really really feel.
But how do we really really feel?
I talked about art as a cup able to contain emotional and spiritual realities without reducing them to banalities. I believe that poetry, or any strong text, fiction or a play, is sharp enough and bladed enough to cut through our confusion, our misunderstanding, and give us a language for what we feel, give us honest words, not lies or clichés, and give us a voice where we would fall into silence.
Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
The poetic text, rich and complex, can open up our feelings, sometimes, even violently rip us out of negative and destructive emotions, slit the baleful cocoon of denial and self-doubt, set us free.
Poetry makes escape possible, not into fantasy – because that is where we live for most of the day, whether our leaders are fantasising about weapons of mass destruction or star wars, or we are thinking about winning the lotto or sleeping with Britney Spears. Poetry helps us escape towards an alternative – tells us that we don’t have to live in the way that we do – prompts us back towards a recognition of life as a place of possibility as well as pain, but a place where even pain has its value, and is as necessary to our souls as pleasure.
If children read poetry in schools everyday, they would find a knife in their pockets better than anything for sale on the streets. They would find a precise and full language, that gives them the words forbidden by bogus authority and popular culture alike. They could cut through the dead language of jargon and legalise, the baffling non-speak of media reporting. They could stab the rotten heart of their own inarticulacy – because we are reducing language to its most basic components.
That is not democracy – that is theft.
And if you think it doesn’t matter that language is slipping away, try this simple test. Choose a language you can speak a little of, but not too much – now try and frame a complex though or a painful emotion.
You can’t. My belief is that as language shrinks, our ability to actually think, to really feel, shrinks too. It may be that violence is a common form of expression among the uneducated, because they want to feel deeply, because they want to express themselves, but can’t – at least not through language. Without language we have no weapon to turn in self-defence against our own unruly emotions, or those of others. We are defenceless.
Under the hysterical babble of our lives lies the vacant terror that we have nothing left to say and no way of saying it
By cutting through the non-speak and the triviality that surrounds us, art’s language finds the truth about ourselves that we whisper in the night, find revealed in dreams, fend off with good works and good intentions. Under the babble is everything we are not saying about the way we live, privately and collectively, and it is not enough to try and say it in conference notes or essays, or even in the best journalism and non-fiction. We still need the numinous, metaphorical, allusive complex language of poetry – the heightened dialogue of the dramatic text, the strange journeys of fiction.
Sometimes the language is achingly simple, but it is everything we need.
Over this last year I have often thought of Beckett, in The Unnamable: ‘I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
With the cup in our hand to remind us and refresh us, and the knife in our pocket as self-defence, we can go on.
SLIDE: Leonardo drawing of man as the centre of the universe
Will you forgive me if I speak personally?
Many years ago when I was a child, living with my adoptive parents in a small and gloomy house, where all books that were not Bible books were forbidden, I managed to buy with the money I earned from my Saturday job a supply of books to keep under the bed.
One day, my mother discovered these books and burned them.
As I turned over the charred pages and blackened spines, I realised something very important; that what I had read was already mine, and that although the objects could be taken and destroyed, what could not be destroyed was the understanding – the sense of self, the sense of worlds far beyond my own, that I had found in those novels and poems. Already, the books had provided me with a covering, they were protecting me, even in their moment of destruction.
My mother thought that she had rid me of the secular influence of literature, but what she couldn’t see, just like in all the fairy stories, was that I wearing an invisible coat – warm and weatherproof, that would kept me safe from hostile elements.
Our relationship with art is something like sewing your own coat, page by page, scene by scene, until we have something fit to wear that we can call our own, that cannot be taken away.
Play this game with yourself; what is really yours? What could you wrap round yourself if everything else were gone? Some people, it is true, have faith, but many do not. I am not proposing art as a secular religion, but I am saying that it can provide deep security, and for two simple reasons:
Art is the best we can do as human beings – our best thoughts, our best language, our ability to pull music out of the air, sit down and play it, our capacity to take the ordinary scenes of life, and perhaps on stage, perhaps on canvas, to render those scenes with an inexplicable meaning and beauty.
If war is the worst of us – and it is, art is the best of us – our supreme efforts at self-explanation. Art has no evolutionary function nor is it a biological imperative – it is, instead, something we seemed to be compelled to do, in all times, all places, conditions good or just plain terrible.
When we spend time with books, pictures, music, we are pulling ourselves away from the getting and spending of daily existence, and making room for much more than daily existence – making room for our own humanity. That is why art is never a luxury, never a waste of time. As the best that we can do, art it is the best that we can give ourselves, and any time we spend with art reinforces a sense of life’s deeper meaning.
Simply, it takes your hand off the panic button. Our crazy world of no time for anything is challenged by the different timezone of art, where half an hour looking at a picture, or an hour listening to music or reading a book, is a kind of active meditation. We claim back our right to time.
My second reason is that in a world where there are no values, except the ones of the market place, art offers us a value system that puts human beings right at the centre, not on the periphery, as servants of the twin gods of money and the machine.
I don’t know why we act as though money and the machine are more important than human beings – but it has been so since the Industrial Revolution, when emphatically the choice was made to put Man in thrall to the machine, rather than use machinery to free Man.
It’s ironic isn’t it that when we have more labour saving devices that we know what to do with, we don’t have time for our kids or for ourselves?
The freedom of the car has become the freedom to sit in traffic jams. The mobile phone is a tyranny. Humans are not, as in this beautiful Renaissance drawing – at the centre of things. The most moving thing about Christianity, it has always seemed to me, though I am not a believer, is that if we read the Scriptures aright, God himself finds his outworking through us, as we find ourselves in God. For the believer, this is a very strong centre.
To put yourself back at the centre of your own life, is not arrogant, nor is it some new-age psychodrama. The jargon and the babble is everywhere, but it is impossible to find a centre without having deeply held personal values, and without believing in the worth of humankind – yourself and others.
It seems to me that we don’t believe in the worth of humankind, and who can blame us – nasty self-destructive species that we are.
But not to find our values and our centre, leaves us prey to those forces of commercialism and cynicism that depend on us believing in nothing. Nature abhors a vacuum. We are fast becoming our own vacuum.
The emptiness that people feel is real. They are exposed, uncovered, windswept and naked, like Shakespeare’s Lear on the blasted heath. The power of that play lies in a man’s failure to know where value lies – to know what is valuable and what is not.
We need to know what is valuable and what is not. In a world like ours, it is wise to have a coat that will last for more than one season.
Art is there for a lifetime.
SLIDE. DAMIAN HIRST. SHARK
The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
Look at this shark – it should be in Brussels, it should be in White House, it should be in the Elysee Palace. It should be the official souvenir of the European Union.
Whenever I think about the European Union I think of this pickled shark, and now that I have been reading about the Treaty of Utrecht, where better to use your own proverb,– De Vous, Chez Vous, Sans Vous?
I find that many people in the world feel that this proverb is about themselves and their situation. In the West we talk about democracy, but most of us would say the decision-making at every level from the tiny to the titanic, is out of our hands. Who really wanted a war in Iraq? Who really wants to drill Antarctica for oil? Who says that big supermarkets and out of town shopping are good and desirable? Who wants American culture to become the culture of the world? That’s not an anti-American statement; it is simply a statement in favour of diversity and difference.
When the G8 summit meets, when the men in Brussels sit down to discuss our future, where is your voice? Where is mine? De Vous Chez Vous Sans Vous.
This modern disenfranchisement – that we call democracy – where there is an illusion of inclusion, but where the reality is very different, makes protest difficult. We are allowed our demonstrations, (within limits), we can write things in newspapers, we can have pressure groups, we can have organisations, we can go on strike – though one look at France under Sarkozy should tell us that he will soon achieve in France what Margaret Thatcher achieved in Britain. In any case, now that the European Union insists that there must be flexibility of labour across national borders, there will always be someone from a poor country ready to take a job in a richer country, driving a bus or cleaning a train.
I am not against immigration – but I see it being used by big business and corporate interests to make it impossible for a local workforce to demand better or different conditions.
The World Bank has a scary phrase that started to do the rounds when Clinton was in power. The phrase is ‘policy can be insulated from politics.’ That means that whoever the people vote in – Right or Left or Centre, global money and global interests are such that real change can’t happen just because a particular country wants it to happen. So if the Third World gets any smart ideas, or the Eastern Block wants to change things in a way that Money doesn’t like, Money can withdraw its loans, put sanctions in place, pull out industry, cancel out-sourcing contracts – and hey, it’s business as usual. We can expect to see much more of this. De Vous Chez Vous Sans Vous
What a shark!
I’ve talked about art as memory, as counter-attack, as a durable coat that is the opposite of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and now I want to think about art as a remedy.
I don’t mean that art is a modern medicine – it isn’t a wonder-drug that targets a disease; rather it is a holistic approach to health – the health of the individual, and of the Body Politic.
We are not in good health; around 53million people in the West are on Prozac, and roughly the same number again on Serotonin Uptake inhibitors. That’s not counting Valium, or Ritalin for the kids, not counting illegal drugs or alcohol abuse. There’s a lot of pain out there, and we’re trying to numb it, dull it, deny it, get through the day.
I don’t believe that our personal problems are separate from our Western ideology of Free Markets and hyper-consumerism. Even for those of us for whom Capitalism, not Socialism, appears to have met our animal needs – we got a house, a job, a car, holidays, plenty of stuff, the message is get a bigger house, better job, 2 cars, more holidays, more stuff. Capitalism can meet the animal needs of some of us, but then, like a stuck record, it just goes on meeting them – more more more, when at least poor old Marx saw that the point of a roof, food, security etc, was to get on with the bigger picture.
Capitalism has no bigger picture; it has only more of the same. It’s no wonder that people are going bonkers. It’s no wonder that the more sensitive among us end up on Prozac or drinking too much. Things are wrong. Very wrong.
I’m not a Marxist. Not a Communist. Certainly not a Capitalist either. I think it’s time for a new system – and I think that art, while not the solution, is part of the remedy.
Art recognises that life has an inside as well as an outside. Art by its very nature reveals and celebrates the inside of life, the parts of us that are not satisfied by, and do not depend on, the busy world of markets and money, machines and management.
Of course artists make money, some of them a great deal of money, and it is true that particularly in the visual arts, capitalism is an enthusiastic partner. But, if suddenly there was no money to be made or accrued from paintings, the smart men with the bank accounts would turn away. The artists, most of them, would still go on painting, making their installations.
I find that the most upsetting effect of modern life is that it deadens people. Our food comes in chilled packets – no smells, no warmth. We travel from place to place in the insulated bubbles of our cars or on a plane. We get most of our knowledge from TV and the Internet, not from direct engagement, because we are interested in something, or from direct experience. A lot of people watch sport, few people play it. Music is everywhere, but canned and manufactured. Few of us have any real skills – whether its woodworking or sewing, handling a boat, growing fruit and flowers. I think the pleasure of being human lies in many of the things that we don’t do anymore – and in having the time to do those things that we don’t do anymore,
There has to be a balance between the inside and the outside of life, and art is a re-balancing remedy.
When so many of our Big Pharma drugs are there to calm agitation and anxiety – quite legitimate agitation and anxiety, it seems to me, art’s vision can be tranquil, and bring us back to a steady state of calm, but art is never tranquillised.
Far from dulling us into acceptance, art offers a series of awakenings – which seems a better word here than either understanding or revelation – the one word too secular, the other too religious. The poem, the play, the piece of music, the painting, rouses us.
One of the things we are likely to recognise in our awakened state is that the outside and the inside of life cannot be separated in any convenient way. We are the crossroads – the shining centre, as Rilke put it in his Orpheus Sonnets, perhaps thinking of this drawing.
Human beings must live whole, or run the risk of not living at all – and I don’t mean that metaphorically – if we don’t blow ourselves to bits quite soon, the planet will kick us off. The crazy visions of money and power just don’t work.
Art works – works of art, working art, art that works, is concerned with unity and wholeness. Life on the outside and life on the inside. Values that engage with reality – because the reality is that if you deny life its deeper meanings, and substitute meaning with money and power, we end up where we are now. More of the same – bigger better stronger, won’t solve our crisis, and science won’t solve it, and religion has failed to solve it.
Art won’t change the world, but its remedy lies in awakening us to those buried longings and desires, to live differently, to live well. The responsibility to do something about what we discover, through art’s invigoration, is ours.
We have, all of us I hope, experienced moments of awakening, when things make sense in a way that they often do not. Something real is found in such moments, but it is also true that we are endlessly finding our way and losing it again, waking up for a moment, only to fall back to sleep. It is why wakefulness and watchfulness are so often crucial to the hero’s quest – his failure or success; Deliah cuts Samson’s hair while he sleeps, Siegfried wakes Brunnhilde, the Prince rouses Sleeping Beauty, Prometheus steals fire while the gods slumber, Many heroes are guided by their dreams – for the artist it must be so – but without waking the dream cannot be realised. The dream in daylight either disappears or finds a form. It is because art is practical that it must find a form – and as we look at the painting, read the text, hear the music, it is as though someone is shaking us by the shoulder, saying ‘wake up, wake’, much in the way that Ulysses is endlessly waking his mariners, and, it must be said, sometimes being woken himself, by the goddess Hera, and urged to remember what Homer calls ‘The Return’, specifically, in his case, to get back to Ithaca. Mythically, it’s an obvious statement about memory, remembrance, the part the past must play in shaping the future, and that brings me to beginning – where we started.
To be fully alive, fully awake, is our birthright. I don’t know if there is a life after this one, but as this is the one we know we have, we must claim it.
Art, as cup, knife, coat, remedy, asks that we lay claim to life. To be awake, to be the shining centre, alive to love and beauty.
De vous, Chez Vous Sans Vous, is not art’s motto. I’d like to re-write it, suggest a new Treaty:
De Nous, Chez Nous, En compagnie de Nous.
MUSIC – HANDEL’S TE DEUM