Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Connecting What Has Been Separated

A colleague recently sent me a link to a short audio file on which Jeanette Winterston talks about the importance of art, even in (especially in) times of trouble. I checked online to see if there was a text version of the speech, and, being unable to find one, I transcribed it myself. Here's her argument:

People sometimes ask me if I think that art is a luxury, of course I don’t think that, but then they ask me to justify art sometimes, especially in the light of the recent atrocities in the world, terrorism and bombing. “What can I do about that?” they say, “Doesn’t this prove that art is really a luxury, a peacetime activity.”

I’ve been thinking about that, and I do have a response, and this is it. Again, it’s part of a larger piece, but it’s something that is worth thinking about, I believe.

We have to make a distinction between the acute crisis, of the terrorist attack, an acute crisis that needs medicine and emergency help, and the chronic crisis that lies underneath it. When the crisis is acute, the media rushes in, politicians gather, news programs and documentaries are everywhere, and it would seem absurd to talk about art in such circumstances. But when the acute crisis is past, and the people who have been hurt and wounded and shocked and disillusioned are looking for hope, are looking for vision, are looking past the platitudes of politicians, then art can speak. And it is to this chronic crisis, this underlying problem in our lives, that art can speak.

We urgently need to change the way that we manage our world, our corporate culture, our international relations, our treatment of the natural world and its eco-systems. We know we cannot go on living as we do, and yet we go on living as we do. Books, paintings, music, theatre, are there to prompt us to think differently, and to see life differently. And when we free up our imaginative life, we are free to imagine a very different kind of world, and that is what is needed, and we’ve never needed it more urgently.

In a world economy that depends on separations, art asks us to make connections. President Bush pretends that emissions in the U.S.A. have nothing to do with drought in Africa, that McDonalds’ hamburgers have nothing to do with deforestation, that a U.S citizen using 88 times more resources than a citizen in Bangladesh has nothing to do with environmental depletion and third world poverty.

So how can reading a poem or looking at a painting or going to the theatre possibly help us to see things differently, or do anything about the things that we see differently? Connection is not just about connecting the obvious. It is about connecting things that are not immediately obvious, and this is what art does. Some people make a mistake, and think that if art is going to be relevant it has to be directly political, that its subject matter is everything. That is to miss the point. It’s not a question of subject matter, it’s not a question of what art is about, but what art is, by its very nature what art is. A work of art — books, theatre, pictures, whatever — isn’t just about something, it is something, and the something that it is connects what has been separated.

Think of a work of art that has meant something to you. Now, let it rest in your mind for a moment. You will become aware that one of the things it did was to make a join, to bring things together, to allow your own mind to re-form in a different way. Sometimes we say, “I’ve never thought of it like that,” or “I never felt like that,” or “That made sense of my experience,” or “That made me laugh, that made me cry.” These emotions, these understandings, these realizations occur when what was split off is brought back together. Art’s business is to take all kinds of disparate elements and fuse them into new wholes. This is not an imposition; art is not colonialism. It is a revelation, a sense of things appearing as they are.

Don’t mistake me. I don’t believe in a static objective reality that is out there. I believe in shifting, changing patterns of energy; the shifting, changing patterns of energy that we’ve begun to apprehend in nature and in the very molecules and atoms and DNA of our bodies. Nothing is solid; nothing is fixed. But this movement, this energy, is not chaos. Science is just beginning to unravel the patterns and shifts and connections that seemed so impossible and implausible. But art intuitively understands these patterns and shifts and connections, because that is exactly how art functions too. And I believe that one of the reasons we go back and back to art, why we don’t give up on it, why people go on making it and wanting it, is because through art, we recognize life’s intrinsic quality, that everything is connected.

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