Monday, November 16, 2009

Art and Society

How is music, the visual arts or literature affected by geo-political issues? Do the dire circumstances of our times impact the Arts? Does the artist integrate his concerns into his work or strive to disassociate from the noise of war, revolution, tribal skirmishes, terrorism, genocide, climate change, etc…?

We’ve witnessed the impoverishment of art when it served the state under Stalin or Hitler yet much powerful work was spawned during the Depression years as the artist painted, wrote and composed as an expression of the overwhelming circumstances of that decade. Disengagement can be a betrayal to one's art, as well.

It seems to me there are traps on either side. The urge to pour one’s political passion into creativity is compelling but it needs to be transformed into another pitch. Polemics seldom evoke. Americans turn away from being scolded or rallied to the barricades. We are more likely to be aroused by the nuanced, indirect word, the metaphorical rendering.

As Auden said, poetry makes nothing happen however artists presumably feel deeply about more than their notes or clay or paint. They take in the world around them and that passion becomes shaped in ways not necessarily recognizable. Stretching our perceptions can be a subversive act in itself as our eyes and ears are awakened into new areas. Unless his address is in the ivory tower the artist is engaged in society.

For the past century many artists have chosen counter moves or alternative forms within their media as a way of expressing opposition to conventional modes. We have heard atonal music, seen abstract art and read post modern writing. All these can be seen as part of a movement challenging the 19th century conventions of a single perspective. Post colonial literature with its magic realism is one more rejection of the old Western model. The art is in the resistance to the givens as well as the constrictions within.

We may or may not accept the new sounds or visuals or the non-narrative writing but I believe it is the artist's response to the fragmented, random and often irratational world we inhabit. As Gertrude Stein remarked, the new always seems ugly.Though it is also true that the ugly is not necessarily anything new.

I was recently brought to tears watching a documentary on Joan Baez when she and a Bosnian cellist brought chairs and sat on a busy square in Sarajevo during the war in the nineties. Together they made their art as a plea for sanity against the senseless loss of life.

Maybe the ultimate statement any art can make is a reminder of our shared humanity and our hunger for beauty within or outside of the familiar ecstatic forms of the past.

In Eva Hoffman’s novel, “Appassionata” a concert pianist is challenged by her Chechnyan lover to question the relevancy of her art. After a great deal of struggle she finds defiance in Beethoven beyond the solace as well as mercy and tenderness in the notes which comes after rage. The music is tiered with complex patterns containing the only force we have to cry out with fierce affirmation against the inhumanity around us.

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