The only redemptive activity we possess, other than directly helping others, is within cultural creativity – specifically, creations of the imagination concerned with the human condition, capable of transforming inaction into action, despair into hope, the mundane into beauty, all to share with our brothers and sisters everywhere.
An artist’s work helps others to realise that we are like them, that we too, across race, religion, generations and languages, can see and touch each other’s souls through beauty - but for beauty to exist it must embody truth.
This is the crux of beauty and perhaps its very heart. If artists persistently explore life, the world around them and themselves, if they continue to be curious, continue to taunt themselves with dreams and nightmare and are persistent in shouting ‘no’ to the powers that be, their explorations may grasp the great depth of the human soul and at the same time discover stories and forms that can present that depth with all the subtlety with which truth needs to be revealed.
The display of the virtuoso actor, musician, composer, fine artists and poets will emanate beauty – the beauty of profound, caring and humane truthfulness – it becomes something almost mysterious, which fills us with radiance and hope. It moves us like seeing our lover’s smile, it shifts our beings and helps us to remember who and what we are. For those brief glorious moments we become who we may have always wished we could have been. This is a gift of beauty.
ARTISTS VS THE PANDEMIC
During the worst of the pandemic, what were we hearing and reading? Some artists were complaining, pestering, revealing mean spirits. They are, after all, simply human.
But we are witnessing many people discovering or rediscovering their sense of fairness and remembering what justice and equality were, much of which they have surrendered to the new oligarchs who run our democracies, in exchange for personal wealth, position and satisfied egos. That, in itself, has become a moral pandemic.
Some artists are digging into their human and creative resources, searching for ways to respond positively to this horrible virus and now the tragedy of Ukraine; both of which are a result of 40 years of heartless neoliberal policies. Yes, we are for sure an inextricable part of the problem even as many also become a part of the solution.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
How then can artists respond? I believe there are three areas to think about.
First, what is essential to offer? What is immediately necessary and important for people in a moment of crisis? Is the delivery of teaching, entertaining or indeed presenting raw truth more important than helping in practical ways? Should an artists put aside their canvas if they can do more good helping medical practitioners, delivering food or caring in other ways rather than singing a song or painting a picture? History is filled with such examples.
I believe the central question must be ‘are their enough other people around doing the vital life supporting things to allow artists to apply themselves to the needs of people’s souls’?
As a photographer/film-maker for many years there has always been, in violent situations, the question of when do I, the documentarian, put the camera down and, as a human being, give a helping hand to the injured?
Second is to consider what one’s energies, skills and emotional/intellectual resources are capable of doing inside one’s immediate community during a crisis.
Can you offer comfort and pleasure through your honed artistic skills to people in need? Can you perform or talk about what you know, play music from a balcony or tell stories, dance or perform from the middle of a square? Can you use social media to teach and entertain people from a digital distance? Can you commit yourself to telling the story as it unfolds for now and for the future?
Third, this crisis presents artists with a question that, in my experience, many do not confront, beyond asking ‘how many people may show up at my concert, etc’.
DO YOU HAVE A NATURAL AUDIENCE?
That question is who is your natural audience’? Is it a group, a class, a race which may be local to where you live; is it spread across a broader area; is it more global but united by particular interests, views or ideologies? If not, then whom have you been trying to address across all the years of creative practice? Most artists would ask why their work is not more accepted? Why do they not have a larger audience? Why can they not make a living with their work?
Many answers are found clustered around recognising not just one’s own skills and sensitivities, but also, the relevance of one’s work to the wellbeing of others.
How does the work address the other’s needs and wants? Does it speak to them?
Does it offer handles that allow them in? Does it insinuate ideas and dreams they can grasp and use to forge a better understanding of reality and hope for change?
I am not offering an argument for realism or naturalism but for twin acts of imagination. The first being able to imagine the humanity, and therefore the needs of one’s hoped for audience. The second is to imagine how one can tell stories that will be meaningful to their immediate lives.
This is what we need to confront in these troubled times and of course it inevitably leads to two other questions: how can we define truth, and what is the usefulness of beauty?