REFLECTION The elevation of art, possibly even to the most prominent position within society, is a potent antidote to fascism, dictatorship, xenophobia, racism, and intolerance. In literary, graphic, or musical form, art resists the multi-pronged attack waged on our societies by rampant consumerism, technological dependence, and throw-away culture.
The art in life and the life in art
In her article for Mänsklig Säkerhet, published on the 1st of October 2020, Gerd Johnsson-Latham discussed the concept of human security, the challenges to its realization, and the potential of the latter to culminate in a “perfect storm”. I would like to offer my thoughts on how the dialogue, cooperation, and respect that she identifies as the cornerstones of human security relate to the central roles of culture and art in individual and societal development.
Art is a reflection of our truest selves
Having worked as a stage designer for 45 years, I view art as fundamental in matters of human security as well as our interactions with our fellow humans, nature, and the environment. Much to our detriment, art and culture often go overlooked in both media and politics when their inclusion should be implicit. The consequences are particularly apparent in secular societies, where it is through paintings, music, literature, and the performing arts that we discover which forces – good and evil – govern us and, by extension, our compassion, sense of responsibility, and moral compass.
“Art is life, Mrs. Christie,” the artist Oskar Kokoschka said to Agatha Christie in Agneta Pleijel’s recent novel, “Double Portrait”. The Austrian painter proceeds to describe art as a reflection of the inner self, a dialogue with one’s own psyche. To him, art is as concrete as our conception of reality, yet the two blend into one another to the point of indistinguishability.
There are countless examples to support Kokoschka’s observations, such as Ingmar Bergman’s exploration of the labyrinthine human mind in his films; Lars Norén’s complex family dramas that warrant description as gladiatorial games of the soul; and Gustav Mahler’s symphonic kaleidoscopes of joy, euphoria, and profound sorrow.
Art and myth connect us with our collective history
The internationally acclaimed artist Anselm Kiefer captures our collective trauma regarding the wars of the past century and interlaces it with millennia-old mythology. His monumental paintings lead us to the conclusion that we are not only connected with the living among us but also with the civilizations that came before.
Each destiny is assimilated into a collective consciousness comprising boundless understandings of existence as well as the trials and tribulations associated with the human condition.
In our practical and material world, we celebrate technological evolution, but the catastrophes and tragedies of history live on through us. It is our duty to show empathy and seek understanding. Above all, we need to develop the tools to overcome the problems and challenges that we will one day face. The stories that we tell on stage, in books, and elsewhere connect our lives with the experiences of others. Chronicles, fairytales, and fables remind us of those who came before and those who will survive us.
In this way, we are given a place in the world – and in time.
Art shows and teaches us about the destructive forces within ourselves
We inevitably learn that close, compassionate coexistence is a basic human need and that it must be actively maintained. Art offers a profound insight as to how we are led from the path of virtue by the destructive forces of selfishness, greed, power, and ambition.
We can, as humans, learn from humanity’s age-old struggle of securing the means to achieve a dream only to find ourselves making inflated demands and resorting to physical conflict in the process.
Art as a means of identification and recognition
Why can we not obtain all of this knowledge from history books and researchers? Above all, art enables its audience to experience and identify with the subject matter. Connecting with a subject on both an emotional and intellectual level creates a stronger impression. In so doing, the art aligns itself with our consciousness. We gain insight. Importantly, we are given the opportunity to see the perspectives of others and understand the motivations behind their actions.
Is art at risk of being replaced by the need for never-ending self-assertion through social media?
Is the answer truly obvious? For all of us – writers, actors, musicians, painters, etc., art’s immense power needs no introduction. How, then, was this potential forgotten by so many others? How did it become neglected by the politicians, schools, and media? I believe that we are being deprived of something critically important – the opportunity to use art to grow as humans and make important decisions regarding our survival.
A stellar example of the importance of art can be found in a remark purportedly made by Winston Churchill who, when his War Cabinet proposed to cut art funding in order to back the war effort, responded with: “Then what are we fighting for?”
Without art and culture, we are rendered soulfully destitute.Such profanation of our lives renders our experiences superficial and fleeting; in the end, we will no longer even understand ourselves. All that will remain is the gnawing fear of going unnoticed; of not being significant in the grand scheme of things. At worst, those seeking the approval of others will turn to Instagram and Twitter, those digital refuges where insecurities grow to monstrous proportions.
The ongoing pandemic has elucidated the trust gap between the politicians, authorities, and creative professionals. As far as security is concerned, we have not been entrusted with the responsibility to operate and manage the containment measures implemented in the theaters, opera-houses, and concert-halls.
Art is not entertainment!
The crux of the issue is the belief that art is something that we can afford to put aside until everything becomes “normal” again, a mere symbol of Epicurean sensibility.
Some may admit that art has a certain aesthetic appeal, yet fewer still regard its utility as extending beyond its outward appearance. How did this come to be? How did art become marginalized, distilled down to a handful of cultural references portrayed by a select few brilliant yet unrelatable artists? Is the vital role that art plays in our lives not worthy of recognition?
Art is not escapism; on the contrary, it is a miracle and the culmination of our knowledge and experience.
Art grows in importance as it is discovered and explored, both alone and together with others. In doing so, we give meaning to the world around us and learn the path to a virtuous life. Over time, these traits benefit our social structures and promote the justness of our society.
The elevation of art, possibly even to the most prominent position within society, is a potent antidote to fascism, dictatorship, xenophobia, racism, and intolerance. In literary, graphic, or musical form, art resists the multi-pronged attack waged on our society by rampant consumerism, technological dependence, and throw-away culture.
Art is the foundation upon which our notions of empathy, ethics, and responsibility are built. It informs our treatment of everything around us – our fellow humans, animals, nature, and the remarkable world on which we live.
This is the “vaccine” for what ails our spirit – a collective process of refinement by innumerable dedicated artists throughout history, each work building upon its predecessors in an effort to halt the spread of ignorance and intolerance.
Freelance production and costume designer. Lars-Åke has consulted for the Royal Swedish Opera, Royal Dramatic Theatre, City Theatres of Stockholm and Gothenburg, and the Gothenburg Opera. Internationally, he has worked in Copenhagen, Prague, Bonn, and London.
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