‘Think of all the great art!’ Let’s not. Alison Croggon ponders art in dark times.
After the election of Donald Trump, a meme started doing the rounds on social media. Well, at least there’s one compensation, people said. Think of all the great art that’s going to happen!
Every time I see this notion, in any of its variants, I want to punch the wall. Even if it were true that dark times produce great art, which is highly arguable, it doesn’t make up for any of the darkness. It doesn’t compensate for the destruction of the planet’s biosystems by corporate capitalism, or the children dying of cholera in Yemen, or the people whose souls are being ground to dust in the wheels of bureaucratic hell.
I think that art is one of the few qualities that justifies humanity, but I don’t believe that the greatest art there ever was is worth the needless suffering of a single person.
Yes, art gets made despite war or tyranny or poverty or madness. If it’s remembered afterwards, it’s with a heroic nimbus, an implicit sense that suffering was necessary to its production. Yet if Bruno Schultz hadn’t been murdered by Nazis, or Federico Garcia Lorca hadn’t been shot by Fascists, or Marina Tsvetaeva hadn’t hanged herself on the way to a gulag, would they be less great? They would certainly have made more art.
Perhaps these narratives of artistic heroism gives this work the specialness of rarity. But like all such stories, they chronicle what survived, not what was destroyed. The destruction of possibility is incalculable and unimaginable. Anna Akhmatova spoke about the muteness that fell on poets during the terror of Stalin’s purges, how their voices fell silent, sometimes for years. But that is the least of it.
What of the millions of people who, throughout history and right now, live in desperate poverty or slavery, or who flee war, famine or persecution? What possibilities will never be released from those minds? I’m not speaking of great artists, although there will be some among them; I’m thinking of love and friendship lost, the homes that were never made, the gardens never tended, the meals never shared, the countless tiny moments of joy that make all our lives worth living. How do we measure those losses?
Dark times destroy lives and worlds. To suggest that the art that survives somehow makes up for everything that is lost is, to my mind, all kinds of obscene.
Like all sentimentalised ideas, the connection of “great art” with suffering is pernicious. Great art happens all the time, in good times and in bad. As with all the better things about civilisation – education, medical services, a healthy scepticism of cant – it’s far more likely to flourish in times of peace. As Marquez said, it is much easier to write a novel with a yellow rose on your desk than in a garret, not knowing where your next meal is coming from.
There are some very basic ethical truths. If a choice is between, say, a hungry child and art, the child must be chosen every time. This is, of course, how a capitalist economy disenfranchises the poor from the possibilities of culture. For many people the choice is between art and the necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing. For too many others, disenfranchised by more than money, there is no such choice offered at all.
In the larger structures of state policy we are often told that funding art – which is the major way that culture can be made widely accessible to the poor and marginalised – is a choice between art and education, or art and welfare. But this is a false dichotomy, presented to us under warped values that, like all ubiquitous ideologies, have become dangerously invisible. The real choice is between the hungry child and multi-million CEO bonuses, between education or hospitals and the multinational companies that every year pay zero tax on their billion dollar profits.
Nevertheless, as with every pernicious fiction, there is a grain of verity in the idea of a connection between art and suffering. In times of emergency, people need art more. When you’re drowning in a world of information that is filtered through all the competing interests of power, art is one of the few places that fully acknowledges the messy truths of our existences.
We not only need art more, we need it to be better. I know that the constant shrill emergency of our times makes me demand more of the art I encounter. When resources are scarce, nothing is more depressing than to see art that swallows time, money, energy and talent, and yet fails to acknowledge our deeper needs. I’m not speaking of ambition that falters and stumbles: there is nothing wrong with trying and failing. I’m thinking of the work that doesn’t begin the attempt, that merely replicates, out of laziness or cynicism or simple lack of imagination, the tired, stale structures that are suffocating us all.
Often even the best work feels inadequate. After all, art solves nothing: it exists for different reasons, and works in different ways, to direct action. And action is the only thing that will save the human race from its worst impulses.
And yet, despite art’s inadequacies, I can’t ignore my need for it. When so much that I love is threatened in large ways and small, when generosity and compassion are dismissed as weakness or foolishness, when the murderous lie is king, I want art that reminds me – no, that does more than remind me – that things might be otherwise.
When meanings are destroyed, I turn to the making of meaning. I look for what will answer my anger and grief. I need to awaken in myself and to see awakened in others the possibilities of laughter, beauty, courage, joy, resistance, delight. I need the resources of imagination and knowledge that art can bring to bear on human experience, in all its complexity and contradiction, in all its fullness.
I know I’m not alone in this. The desire for meaning is embedded in every human being, and too many of us suffer the poverties of its absence. We all have to live with the monsters that rush in to fill that emptiness – the unreasoning fear of difference, hollow consumerism, political delusion, violence. Addressing those poverties, opening the complex truths of art to anyone who needs them, is the necessary task for artists. And not only in dark times.