I heard something that struck a chord with me, on the radio, late last Sunday night. It was a speech about the power of art, by writer A.L. Kennedy, give as part of the “A Point of View” series. She made some interesting points.
So many people, in the world, casually disregard beauty and art as being unnecessary. They hold that these things are optional fripperies and not a necessity for life at all. For every poet, painter, musician and writer, there is somebody telling them to get a real job and make a genuinely worthwhile contribution to society. The beauty they create is deemed to be superfluous and surplus to cold, hard, rational requirements. Indeed, ornamentation and decoration have been more or less banished from most of the things we create today; minimalist, unadorned, naked and stark as they have become. In short, there are people that would have us live without art and beauty and who think that it is something we can and ought to forego.
A.L. Kennedy argued the opposite case. She made the assertion that, not only was art powerful, it was essential for the maintenance of life. Far from being an optional extra, it was at the core of what it means to live as a human being. I’m going to borrow heavily from her words, here and embellish and enlarge upon the points she made in her brief, ten minute address.
At times when you need to be sustained, you can make something beautiful, which pleases you and you can put it in a place where you see it every day, so that you are pleased, anew, each time you see it. This is one of the very most important reasons why we make art. However, in sharing what we have made with others, we open it up to judgement and criticism. In some cases, our art is made vulnerable to vandalism. Our creations can be hurt.
By hurting what an artist makes, you hurt them as a person. Let me explain the connection.
The art you make, as an artist, helps you expand into the world, to be something more and in hurting the art you made, the harmer makes an artist feel smaller than they already do. It is as if to say, “No, you may not be anything more than the insignificant thing you are.” Is it any wonder that those who would seek to control you do so by harming your art first?
Abusive spouses, false friends, bosses from hell, the authorities and all manner of other psychopaths attack your creations first, before attacking you, because they know how it will affect you. It’s why they feel too smug and smart to create anything of their own, for public scrutiny and possible humiliation. That’s only for those that can be controlled, in their calculus.
What signal does it send to somebody, if you paint over their painting or tear up their writing? It minimises and belittles them. It takes their one little fragment of significance and immortality and snuffs it out, permanently. Could there be a more potent symbol of existential threat than that?
Even destroying or harming somebody’s art by accident, not as a judgement, insisting that it can be restored and put right, does not completely mend what has been disturbed. It indicates a lack of concern, care and sensitivity, for such a mistake to have been made. There’s something in the heart that gets broken, which can never be repaired.
The art you make isn’t you, but it is an expression of you and of what you understand of the world. Your artworks are supposed to please others, but the making of them pleases you, the artist, first and foremost. There is a subtle connection, indelible between the creator and what they create.
We live in a world where children are preyed upon and where human beings will shoot, bomb, kidnap and torture other human beings, usually out of a belief in their own supremacy over their victims and their entitlement to act without moral constraint or conscience, using rights of action bestowed upon them by the nature of their supposed authority; their philosophies turned toxic by terrible certainties. These are certainties that deny reality and must, therefore, be overbearing and cruel. Some deaths are classified as important and others as mundane and inconsequential – barely marked or noticed, seldom remarked upon. In many ways, the world we inhabit is a truly terrible and dark place.
On the other hand, we also live in a world where people risk their own health, terrible diseases and possible death, in war zones or areas of non-existent sanitation and extreme deprivation, simply to prevent strangers from dying. It’s a place where people make living organ donations, to help others survive. Volunteers clear mines in former combat zones to prevent children from losing their limbs. The same wicked world is also a place where public donations and generosity can shame governments. We have first-aiders, accompaniers, mentors, foster parents and volunteers. Grass roots, goodwill efforts self-organise to defend and protect the children or to feed the hungry. It’s a world where people march and fill the streets to demonstrate their will to keep their peace. In many ways, we live in an enlightened place, full of necessary beauty. So why bother to make art? Why do we need “unnecessary” beauty?
We need it because of its potency and what it represents. Individuals and groups who have sought to control or extinguish entire populations, to marginalise or demonise this or that type of human being, seem to believe in the power of art even more than the ordinary person does. The most evil people in society know full well why the unnecessary beauty of art is so powerful and so essential and they seem to know it instinctually.
Despots and dictators, alike, ardently seek out, restrict and destroy those intimate, idiosyncratic joys we find in the songs we sing, the stories that travel with us, our folk tales and traditions, the verses that sustain us, the paintings, drawings and sculptures, architecture and buildings, voices, plays, performances, images, satires and jokes, that lift us and give us dignity; the things that show us the light in our world and in ourselves. To oppress an entire population, as every despot knows in their bones, you must smother this light.
Why? Because these artefacts show us, in tangible, concrete ways, that individual human beings have the capacity and power to create wonders which outlast them and which transcend every classification of gender, race, religion, political affiliation, philosophy, dogma, nationality and age. When you are trying to organise a society around a rigid, totalitarian ideology, living proof of transcendence of that belief system is somewhat of an embarrassing inconvenience. It undermines your entire domination project and screws around with your conquest.
There is no doubt that art is a power and much of its true power is invisible and private. It is, rather remarkably, memorised and held in prison cells and on forced death marches. You can see why totalitarians and authoritarians of all kinds dislike it. When the heir to throne rails against modern art and architecture, is he merely expressing his aesthetic preferences, or is it something darker, born of a need to suppress and prohibit what makes the masses happy, self-confident and self-reliant? Is it anything more than a need to assert the legitimacy and necessity of monarchy, in the manner of a stroppy, foot-stomping tantrum, while denying the agency and self-determination of ordinary people, who really do not require such governance and oversight, when they are quite obviously capable of such spontaneous, self-directed, creative outpourings? It’s the freedom of artists that self-appointed, controlling people hate. It takes away their legitimacy to rule.
You can see why Soviet Russia, especially under Stalin, and bible-belt America, had to so violently resist rock and roll and modern art. It’s obvious why the Nazis had to define and deride “degenerate art”, produced by the “untermenschen” their ideology despised, while secretly appropriating (i.e. stealing) its glamour and comfort, its wit and sophistication, for themselves. There can be no doubt why suspected communists were prevented from making films in McCarthy’s Hollywood. You can immediately understand why huge statues of Buddha, centuries old and carved out of the rock face, had to be destroyed by dynamite by fundamentalists of another religion. It’s no longer a mystery why the Dubrovnik world heritage site had to be shelved. Compelling musicians to play, while people screamed, howled desperately and died like animals in gas chambers, must have seemed so powerful and amusing to the commandants giving the orders. Now you can see why the wealthiest in society so often pour scorn and derision on artists and pay them derisory sums for their work. You can see why their wannabes gleefully join in and play along, aping their idols in the hope of one day becoming as rich and powerful too, though they never will. Most years, somewhere, books are burned. Clear, too, is the reason why the Khmer-Rouge would ban the word for “sleep”, shoot people for being intellectuals, or kill a girl for no other reason than her being “too beautiful”.
The control of our art is very often to prevent us from being “too beautiful”; independently sustained by beauty from uncontrollable sources. We are beautiful for ourselves and for others. This is why those that would control us must convince us and propagandise us to see ourselves as ugly. We must crave the remedies to our misshapen, unacceptable faces and bodies and seek salvation from those we must obey. We must, in their way of seeing things, relinquish the power endowed to us by our creativity.
When I make something that pleases others, through my art, I become more. If others make something beautiful for me, I’m grateful and joyful. Both make me smile. I may never have been to a particular foreign land, but if I see photographs of that place, or read novels written by their people, I can momentarily inhabit their lives, minds and homes and experience life through their eyes, with understanding. It creates a type of love.
If somebody wanted to suppress or destroy the people from this particular foreign land, it would be best to conceal or destroy their art first; their voice in the world; their immortality. History teaches us that if you destroy any group in effigy, you smooth the way to destroying them in fact.
Journalists, writers, poets, playwrights, essayists, novelists and bloggers are all punished by oppressive regimes, often brutally and savagely, for the sin of writing down independent ideas, anathema to the rulers. Words trouble, question, ignite. At their best, they let us see ourselves truly as we are – a good and bad species, worth preserving. That is to say that those unnecessary beauties are especially necessary.
Mankind’s imagination can create ugliness and destruction, so it would seem to be an act of rational self-defence to create the opposite, in response. Creating art is our way of defending ourselves from the dark, evil monstrosities that our collective imaginations are capable of conjuring and bringing into the world.
As humans, we are small, solitary, frail, short-lived beings. We deserve the opposite as consolation. We ought to be able to create something bigger than ourselves, to be shared, which is robust, monumental and eternal. That’s the least comfort we should expect.
Stolen moments of beauty and fragments of art can literally help you survive, in the very worst of circumstances. It has been said that why we live can sustain us when we can’t see how. Hearts starve as well as bodies. Give us bread, but give us roses. Our bodies and our hearts must be nourished.
I used to find it hard to understand what motivated young kids to risk a criminal record by spray painting public spaces in garish colours, usually just to leave their tag. Now I see that there is something existential about it. You would want to leave brightly coloured marks, wherever you dared, when your surroundings are ugly, featureless, concrete canyons, into which you have been thrown for good and which are designed to make you feel small and insignificant. Graffiti is about creating permanence, beauty, brightness and significance.
It’s for these same reasons that more middle class people engage in bird watching, animal appreciation, collecting sunset pictures, or spending their time gardening. When their own lives are surrounded by ugliness, beauty is a refuge. This escape into unnecessary beauty is a form of salvation and a way of restoring optimistic hope, in the face of despair. The middle classes have more in common with tearaway, renegade graffiti artists than they think.
It’s no wonder we artists continue to make art, against all odds. It’s too necessary not to.