Monday, September 11, 2006

Reflecting on Art and the World

When reflecting on the state of world affairs over the last 5 years, the role of art and artists may be and often is brought into question. In a recent debate with some artists, I was questioned as to the importance of art in a time of war and terrorism.

"Why do we need something as useless as art when people are being killed around the world?"

"Shouldn't we (artists) use our skills to change things?"

These are just two of the points we debated. For me, to answer the first question, I think it is in times like this that we need art more than ever. Whether the art allows for discussion, debate, a new perspective, or even a moment of beauty, then art is needed. We need art to remind us of what is good in the world. We need art that allows for the freedom of ideas even when these ideas are against our own.

As for the second question, I found this a bit harder for me to answer clearly. Let me explain why. For the most part I am not a fan of what I consider "activist art" or "propaganda art". (Note, these things are not necessarily the same.) I often find this type of work heavy handed and usually preaching to the converted. I often wonder if art ever has a real impact on society. Can art actually change things? As it turns out these discussions came about around the same time that I read a wonderful new post by Jerry Saltz, The Whole Ball of Wax, in which he deals with these issues. I highly recommend reading it.

In times like this we need to have more open discussions and debates. Let us find out why people think what they think. We may not be able to change their beliefs but we may at least learn how to live with each other peacefully. And let us remember that throughout history art has been made in in the face of tragedy, war, plagues, famine, and strife. Art is one of the things that makes us who we are.

4 Responses to “Reflecting on Art and the World”

Anonymous said...
September 12, 2006 at 11:41 AM

Reading this I am reminded of a quote from George Lipsitz in Time Passages:
"Culture can seem like a substitute for politics, a way of posing only imaginary solutions to real problems, but under other circumstances culture can become a rehearsal for politics, trying out values and beliefs permissible in art but forbidden in social life."

This is a truly enlightening view of art as a healing and socially viable opportunity. I feel that too much art is just for other artists to appreciate, for others it is a genuine response to the world around them. So we don't need MORE art or artistic messages in a time of war, we need them always.

Amy said...
September 13, 2006 at 7:21 PM

I am posting here one of my favorite essays on this topic.

The book is :

"Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies
and Political Tragedies" - by Lawrence Weschler

Excerpts from first essay: VERMEER IN BOSNIA

I happened to be in The Hague a while back, sitting in on the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal-specifically, those related to the case of Dusko Tadic, the only one of more than forty accused war criminals whom the Tribunal has actually been able to get its hands on up to that point. While there, I had occasion to talk with some of the principal figures involved in this unprecedented judicial undertaking.

At one point, for instance, I was having lunch with Antonio Cassese, a distinguished Italian jurist who has been serving for the past two years as the president of the court (the head of its international panel of eleven judges). He'd been rehearsing for me some of the more gruesome stories that have crossed his desk-maybe not the most gruesome but just the sort of thing he has to contend with every day and which perhaps accounts for the sense of urgency he brings to his mission. The story, for instance, of a soccer player. As Cassese recounted, "Famous guy, a Muslim. When he was captured, they said, 'Aren't you So-and-So?' He admitted he was. So they broke both his legs, handcuffed him to a radiator, and forced him to watch as they repeatedly raped his wife and two daughters and then slit their throats. After that, he begged to be killed himself, but his tormentors must have realized that the cruelest thing they could possibly do to him now would simply be to set him free, which they did. Somehow, this man was able to make his way to some U.N. investigators, and told them about his ordeal - a few days after which, he committed suicide."

.....Stories like that: one judge's daily fare. And, at one point, I asked Judge Cassese how, regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss, he had kept from going mad himself. His face brightened. "Ah," he said with a smile. "You see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis Museum, in the center of town, so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers."

Sitting there over lunch with Cassese, I'd been struck by the perfect aptness of his impulse. I, too, had been spending time with the Vermeers at the Mauritshuis, and at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, as well. For Vermeer's paintings, almost uniquely in the history of art, radiate "a centeredness, a peacefulness, a serenity" (as Cassese put it), a sufficiency, a sense of perfectly equipoised grace. In his exquisite Study of Vermeer, Edward Snow has deployed as epigraph a line from Andrew Forge's essay "Painting and the Struggle for the Whole Self," which reads, "In ways that I do not pretend to understand fully, painting deals with the only issues that seem to me to count in our benighted time: freedom, autonomy, fairness, love." And I've often found myself agreeing with Snow's implication that somehow these issues may be more richly and fully addressed in Vermeer than anywhere else.

But that afternoon with Cassese I had a sudden further intuition as to the true extent of Vermeer's achievement-something I hadn't fully grasped before. For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty, replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation. To be sure, the sense of Holland during Vermeer's lifetime which we are usually given-that of the country's so-called Golden Age-is one of becalmed, burgherlike efficiency; but that Holland, to the extent that it ever existed, was of relatively recent provenance, and even then under a continual threat of being overwhelmed once again.

........Jan Vermeer was born in 1632, sixteen years before the end of the Thirty Years' War, which virtually shredded neighboring Germany and repeatedly tore into the Netherlands as well. Between 1652 and 1674, England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands went to war three times, and though most of the fighting was confined to sea battles, the wars were not without their consequences for the Dutch mainland: Vermeer's Delft, in particular, suffered terrible devastation in 1654, when some eighty thousand pounds of gunpowder in the town's arsenal accidentally exploded, killing hundreds, including Vermeer's great contemporary, the painter Carel Fabritius. These were years of terrible religious conflict throughout Europe-the climaxes of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and their various splintering progeny. And though the Dutch achieved an enviable atmosphere of tolerance during this period, Holland was regularly overrun with refugees from religious conflicts elsewhere. (Vermeer himself, incidentally, was a convert to Catholicism, which was a distinctly minority creed in the Dutch context.) Finally, in 1672, the Dutch fell under the murderous assault of France's Louis XIV and were subjected to a series of campaigns that lasted until 1678. In fact, the ensuing devastation of the Dutch economy and Vermeer's own resulting bankruptcy may have constituted a proximate cause of the painter's early death, by stroke, in 1675: he was only forty-two.

......I found myself being reminded of a moment in my own life, over twenty-five years ago. I was in college and Nixon had just invaded Cambodia and we were, of course, all up in arms; the college had convened as a committee of the whole in the dining commons-the students, the professors, the administrators-what were we going to do? How were we going to respond? Our distinguished American history professor got up and declared this moment the crisis of American history. Not to be outdone, our eminent new-age classicist got up and declared it the crisis of universal history. And we all nodded our fervent concurrence. But then our visiting religious historian from England-a tall, lanky lay-Catholic theologian,as it happened, with something of the physical bearing of Abraham Lincoln-got up and suggested mildly, "We really ought to have a little modesty in our crises. I suspect," he went on, "that the people during the Black Plague must have thought they were in for a bit of a scrape."

Having momentarily lanced our fervor, he went on to allegorize, deploying the story of Jesus on the Waters (from Matthew 8:23-27). "Jesus," he reminded us, "needed to get across the Sea of Galilee with his disciples, so they all boarded a small boat, whereupon Jesus quickly fell into a nap. Presently a storm kicked up, and the disciples, increasingly edgy, finally woke Jesus up. He told them not to worry, everything would be all right, whereupon he fell back into his nap. The storm meanwhile grew more and more intense, winds slashing the ever-higher waves. The increasingly anxious disciples woke Jesus once again, who once again told them not to worry and again fell back asleep. And still the storm worsened, now tossing the little boat violently all to and fro. The disciples, beside themselves with terror, awoke Jesus one more time, who now said, 'Oh ye of little faith' - that’s where that phrase comes from - and then proceeded to pronounce, 'Peace!' Whereupon the storm instantaneously subsided and calm returned to the water." Our historian waited a few moments as we endeavored to worry out the glancing relevance of this story. "It seems to me," he finally concluded, "that what that story is trying to tell us is simply that in times of storm, we mustn't allow the storm to enter ourselves; rather we have to find peace inside ourselves and then breathe it out."

And it now seemed to me, sitting among the Vermeers that afternoon at the Mauritshuis, that that was precisely what the Master of Delft had been about in his life's work: at a tremendously turbulent juncture in the history of his continent, he had been finding - and, yes, inventing - a zone filled with peace, a small room, an intimate vision . . . and then breathing it out.

Copyright© 2004 by Lawrence Weschler

Scott said...
September 21, 2006 at 5:15 AM

Great quotes, thanks

Liriodendron said...
September 24, 2006 at 8:45 AM

actually off topic....but kind of related (and I like the painting! ;) )

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