I decided to record the debate on a rather simple digital recorder, and I’m glad that I did. The panel consisted of Ruth Mackenzie (Chair and the Festival Director), Peter Sellars, Jonathan Harris, Heather Ackroyd, and David Aaronovitch. First, Jonathan Harris attempted to illustrate that great works of art, although originating in a certain political context, nevertheless go beyond this context and may ultimately lose any connection with it. This brought to my mind a Chinese aphorism about poetry that I quoted previously in the blog: that poetry, when conveying a feeling through a “thing”, should be precise about the “thing” and reticent about the feeling, so that through the experience of the thing the feeling could be captured.
Heather Ackroyd spoke, first, about etymology and definitions of politics, and state, and art (not always convincingly, in my opinion), and then moved on to give various examples of modern art reacting to and challenging political regimes. David Aaronovitch, who came next, honestly admitted that, while listening to Jonathan and Heather, he forgot to think of what to say for himself. In the light of which he started by taking an issue with Heather and continued and ended up speaking more about politics than any kind of art. And then came Peter Sellars and, thankfully, saved the debate by getting back to where it all started: the crossroads of art and politics.
It is here that I can utter that I’m very happy to have recorded the debate because Peter’s talk is a great example of public talk. Someone may say this is no wonder that a famous theatre director should also be a good speaker, but, as we all know, talents for art and for speech don’t always complement each other.
It was Sellars who touched on the question I raised at the end of my previous post. Art and politics always mix, but to what end? A few people told me I was a dreamer, which I accept because it is true. I’ve always believed in peace, so for me the goal of both art and politics is to promote peace by the means of peace. Again, previously on this blog I quoted Picasso who said that ‘painting is the instrument of war‘. This phrase, however, shouldn’t be construed as Picasso’s advocating the war: Guernica is one of the most powerful anti-war statements in the world’s art. Rather Picasso was acknowledging the fact that art could be and was being used to wage and propagate wars. Yet he was also arguing that, since an artist is a political being, whose biggest political act consists of the ability to take interest in another human being, then painting, as art in general, was the instrument of bringing peace.
This theme of an artist’s empathy lies at the heart of Sellars’s talk. To accord a human status to a human being is a great political act, and art therefore teaches people the skill of inclusiveness, the ability to ‘get outside of your head‘ and to put yourself in other people’s shoes. It is also art, not the media, that provides a new level of information, as ‘uninformed democracy is worse than a tyranny‘. The lack of information and empathy leads to violence which is ‘the collapse of communication‘, the ultimate manifestation of the lack of knowledge and understanding. This is the theme that rises in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant: at certain point during the film you realise that the tragedy that is about to happen has to do not only with the “dangerous minds”, but with the conflict between craving for inclusion and alienation. In Sellars’s words, today’s violence originates from one’s desire to ignore and another’s desire to be acknowledged, whereby the latter plants a bomb in the former’s car.
War is the consequence of this lack of communication and violence, and the purpose of art is to teach us see both reasons and consequences of violence. There is only one way to prevent wars, and that is through deepening people’s listening and looking capacities. At the same time, art continues to be a category beyond all categories, a land that doesn’t exist, and it’s this non-existence that draws us to art. In this, art is akin to culture, and culture, in the words of J.-P. Sartre, neither saves, nor justifies anyone; but it is a man’s creation, a critical mirror in which he can see and recognise himself (The Words).
Ultimately, man always wants to possess something he doesn’t have, and that is Beauty. The myth of Pygmalion is about the fundamental craving for the Beautiful, it is about the desire to have that which is unattainable and yet so close. The pleasure of finding and experiencing the Beautiful is what we should read in the well-known ‘beauty saves the world‘. It is not Beauty as such that saves the world, it is our full and open experience of it that does. Sellars utters this at the end of his talk: ‘world is going to be transformed through pleasure, not through accusation‘.
I suppose it is easy to see, whose side I am on, which I personally acknowledged to Peter. I uploaded his speech, and I still apologise for some technical imperfections and coughing sounds – there is little you can do at the live event of this kind. But I feel that we need speakers like Peter Sellars who encourages the new generation of artists to complexify things exactly when politicians are simplifying them. He calls on the artists’ sophistication, humility and empathy, to bring deeper understanding and pleasure to people. Listen to his talk, think about it, pass it on. For my part, this was one of the occasions when I was thrilled and proud to be living in Manchester.
Again, you can follow the link to listen to an MP3 file.