A very well known and apparently much loved artist, Ronald Searle, the cartoonist responsible for the illustrations in the St Trinian’s books, died this week, aged ninety one. People die all the time, even remarkable artists, so what’s so noteworthy about his passing? Well, there were several tributes paid to him and his life, which retold the tales of his imprisonment at Changi, during the Second World War, and of his forced labour on the notorious Burma Railway, also known as the railway of death.
This was the thing that struck me: even though he had to survive under the most brutal, cruel and capricious regime, where the lowliest guard would think nothing of killing a starving, weakened, emaciated, ailing and exhausted man in cold blood, or inhumanly torturing him for the most minor transgression, Searle documented his time under this oppression in drawings, which he hid under the dead bodies of his friends and comrades that had succumbed to Cholera. He hid them there because he knew the guards were afraid to go near these diseased bodies and he wanted to preserve a record of his experiences, in pictures, for posterity. Those drawings are now kept in the Imperial War Museum.
Here was a man that could have been killed for his art, at any tick of the clock, yet he continued to draw. Why? What is it about art that compels a man to risk his very existence? Is it the feeling of power over adversity that art can bring, or its ability to immortally tell the story of your life, long after you are dead and gone? Is it a form of justice in an unjust world? Is it a form of defiance and rebellion, in the face of seemingly unending control and repression? Perhaps it’s because it nourishes your soul, when you are starving and undernourished. It seems a foolhardy act, to continue to draw under risk of death, but it must be explicable. There’s something about art that makes it worth doing, even in the darkest, most dangerous moments.
The world gave free reign and voice to the sheer brutality and savagery possessed by the biggest scumbags in the human race, during the Second World War (and to this very day, I would argue). Of course, they were all just following orders, right? I don’t think so. They were on the make. They saw personal advantage in it. They found a way to let their selfishness, callous heartlessness and cruelty run amok, unconstrained, and revelling in their own apparent power and importance, those guards (and politicians and generals and industrialists and financiers and kings). For several decades during the twentieth century, personal morality, ethics and decency were entirely jettisoned, or else supremely selfish acts of untrammelled barbarism were self-justified, using the most tortuous of arguments and twisted logic. We learned what the worst of humanity could be capable of doing. It disgusts me still.
Meanwhile, lots of really nice guys got killed. We lost countless artists, poets, musicians, innovators and creative minds. We may never realise the true cost to humanity. It’s like we burned the library at Alexandria all over again, except instead of books, we destroyed so many valuable minds instead.
Nazi Germany even found a way to classify some art and artists as “degenerate”. There’s the pot calling the kettle black. Aesthetic judgementalism and prejudice in the service of political ideology and dogma. Some artists were persecuted more than others. Emil Nolde was held to be so degenerate, that he was forbidden to even possess art materials, on pain of death. He was not allowed to paint, even in private, after 1941. Nevertheless, during this period he created hundreds of watercolours, which he assiduously hid. He called them the “Unpainted Pictures”. Here, again, the compelling urge to create art overwhelmed his understandable fear of further persecution, prosecution, if not outright execution. Art was worth doing, even under those circumstances.
What fuelled the impressionist movement? Being labelled “refuseniks” and “mere daubers” is what did it. Impressionism was originally coined as a term of abuse and derision. How did the impressionists respond? They created their own “Salon of the Refused” as a direct snub to the Salon de Paris. Defiance and the triumph of the human spirit is what eventually made these paintings significant, desirable and beloved. As a race, we seem to appreciate those that stand up to injustice, albeit far too belatedly to be of any consequence to the heroes of the hour. Art is a very useful vehicle of expression for those that would defy the authorities and change the status quo.
Art has power. It is emotionally affective. It triggers feelings and memories. It urges uprising and stirrings of discontent. It empowers those that view or hear it to take back the power that they truly possess, in numbers. It is a threat to power. Art and those that make art have always been known as agents that can change the world. Art often does change the world. It’s transformational, at both a personal and global level. Art provides pain relief to the oppressed. It emboldens those whose courage falters. It inspires mankind to aspire to better things in a better world. Art offers a real emotional and psychological escape to freedom. It provides sanctuary for the inner mind. There have been studies done about this, but prisoners that engage in creative pursuits and art have far lower reoffending rates than those that do not. Art is redemptive. Art is cathartic. You always feel better, when you have created something.
Arthur Koestler, a controversial and psychologically damaged individual who appeared to have a deep and dark hatred of women, which he expressed through the wanton abuse (physical and sexual) of his closest female acquaintances, is nevertheless widely regarded as a great writer and thinker. Isn’t that a strange thing? His book “Darkness at Noon” is drawn from his experiences of being imprisoned as a political prisoner under Franco, during the Spanish civil war, his subsequent imprisonment in France as a subversive and his incarceration in Pentonville as an illegal immigrant. Yet he continued to write. Whatever you feel about Koestler the man (and I feel pity), his art elevates the human condition, because it so clearly alerts us to the darkness and inhumanity at the core of so many of our fellow men. His name lives on through the Koestler Trust, the UK’s best-known prison arts charity, which has been awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, detainees and secure patients for over 49 years.
How about Caravaggio? Here is an artist that is hard to love. He murdered, brutalised, intimidated and generally acted completely unacceptably, his entire life, especially to students that wished to learn and emulate his techniques. Yet it cannot be denied that he produced paintings of such sublime and breathtaking beauty that you have to conclude there was some modicum of goodness within that dark soul of his. His art, at least in part, redeems him in our eyes. I do not believe that artistic ability should ever excuse inhuman and cruel acts, but darn it, you have to admit the paintings still shine, centuries after they were first painted.
Art is with us during our darkest episodes. It has the power to heal. It has remarkable properties and abilities, when you come to think about it. Dark arts, produced at times of despair, suffering, pain and depression, are sometimes the best art we have. Long may art uplift us all.