Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Arts: Medicine or Duty?

Increasingly our conversations about the arts/health/well-being agenda have to take into account broader issues - and I know I’m like a stuck-record here, but isn’t this what art is: where the arts excite, provoke and influence (or incite) social change? 

On the ground - face to face, working around health and well-being, we know that the participatory arts have the potential to impact on individuals and small groups, but in a wider context, do we have ways of understanding the impact of art beyond the individual and on a societal level? On behavior and policy?

This week amidst escalating Olympic histrionics and the launch of the bizarre commemorative, Titanic centenary cruise to Newfoundland, two stories, not unrelated to our spectrum of arts/individual/society, have been in the press: the artist Louise Bourgeois (who died in 2010) has an interesting exhibition, and the writer Gunter Grass has been barred from Israel for publishing a poem.

Firstly, the exhibition: Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed runs until 27 May at the Freud Museum and explores the artists own experience of psychotherapy over 30 years alongside her art. It’s an interesting juxtaposition as the details of her own psychoanalysis only really emerged after her death, but the detailed writings reveal a 30 year, four times a week therapeutic relationship. These free-association writings and doodles are exhibited alongside her work at the Freud Museum - writing that she was encouraged to undertake by art critic Peter Frank, not her therapist, and which she described as ‘...not either my medicine nor my duty."

This is an incredibly interesting exhibition when we think about the relationship between the individual artist, Therapy and the broader Arts/Health movement and one I’d recommend that we continue to discuss. There is an interesting review in the Guardian which you’ll find by clicking on the photograph below.

German polymath, Gunter Grass provides another powerful voice, but where the voice of Bourgeoise was very much focused inwards, and I quote,  "In the 20th century the best work has been produced by those people whose exclusive concern was themselves..." Grass vociferously projects outwards and towards Benjamin Netanyahu and what he calls ‘western hypocrisy over Israel's own suspected nuclear programme amid speculation it might engage in military action against Iran to stop it building an atomic bomb.’ Israel has of course, banned him from entering the country and labeled him anti-semitic. So, what is this poem, and is any criticism of Israeli policy seen as anti-semitism?

When poetry sees you barred from a country, shouldn’t we pause and reflect on the potency of the arts beyond the individual and the power of the arts as non-violent protest? 

I made reference to Percy Shelley’s response to the Peterloo Massacre in my paper Fur Coat and No Knickers, and how when up to 80,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819 to demand the reform of parliament, the government sent in the cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and 650 injuries.This Massacre provoked Shelley to write what is widely seen as the first statement of the principle of non-violent resistance in The Masque of Anarchy.

“...Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many — they are few.”

Retiring Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre, Nicolas Kent’s final work, The BOMB, was a mix of plays, films, exhibitions and discussions about the Nuclear Bomb and its proliferation from the 1940’s to today. What a shame the Grass poem wasn’t published a month earlier, because which ever side of the fence you sit (or is that segregation wall?), we need to animate public discussion about some of the most important issues of the 21st Century. Theatre critic Michael Billington described Kent’s work as ‘...an astonishing achievement that puts the nuclear issue back at the centre of public debate. The Tricycle has once again started a debate that our politicians would prefer to suppress.’ I’d suggest that Grass has upped the ante, and around such a poisonous issue that is clearly related to global health and well-being, and that expands the issues, way beyond benign sloganeering.

I’ve been involved in some interesting discussions with colleagues from the cultural sector about the ‘value’ of the arts and how we understand reach and impact, and details of that work will be published soon by the RSA, but listening to Grass, and yet feeling impotent as the politicians maneuver with oily dexterity around the biggest issues, I’m reminded that the value of the arts and artists lies beyond the ‘market’. Through their illumination and challenge to our own supine acceptance of the status quo, the true value of the arts, continues to be immeasurable.
Here is an unofficial translation of the Grass poem courtesy of Breon Mitchell and the Guardian, although I’ve seen variations out there. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

What must be said
Why have I kept silent, held back so long,
on something openly practiced in
war games, at the end of which those of us
who survive will at best be footnotes?
It's the alleged right to a first strike
that could destroy an Iranian people
subjugated by a loudmouth
and gathered in organized rallies,
because an atom bomb may be being
developed within his arc of power.
Yet why do I hesitate to name
that other land in which
for years—although kept secret—
a growing nuclear power has existed
beyond supervision or verification,
subject to no inspection of any kind?
This general silence on the facts,
before which my own silence has bowed,
seems to me a troubling lie, and compels
me toward a likely punishment
the moment it's flouted:
the verdict "Anti-semitism" falls easily.
But now that my own country,
brought in time after time
for questioning about its own crimes,
profound and beyond compare,
is said to be the departure point,
(on what is merely business,
though easily declared an act of reparation)
for yet another submarine equipped
to transport nuclear warheads
to Israel, where not a single atom bomb
has yet been proved to exist, with fear alone
the only evidence, I'll say what must be said.
But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.
Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel's atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because—burdened enough as Germans—
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
will not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.
And granted: I've broken my silence
because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger
we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.
No other course offers help
to Israelis and Palestinians alike,
to all those living side by side in enmity
in this region occupied by illusions,
and ultimately, to all of us.
Gunter Grass

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