By Ross Manson, Artistic Director
The greatest single phenomenon in the 20th century was the mass migration of people from where they were born to somewhere else – either within or across national borders. The greatest single phenomenon of the 21st century remains to be seen – but, now that we’ve all moved, it will likely involve finding a way to get along as the the storms come and the oceans rise.
Where does art fit in this? Ted Hughes calls it medicine for a damaged human consciousness. Wallace Shawn says that as a fly can blithely land on the nose of a queen, so an idea heard from a neighbour on Tuesday can be whispered into the ear of a president on Thursday. Paul Kagame says that hope lies in the fact that because people can so easily be taught to behave badly, they can also be taught to behave well. It all depends on what people are listening to. So information is everything, what people are exposed to is everything, because we are all sponges – we are all, always, looking for clues on how to behave in a constantly bewildering world.
What goes on inside people’s heads is what gets manifested in the world of human behaviour. And most humans have very little idea of what “the others” are thinking, or why. Yet we always organize ourselves into groups, so there are always “others.” And what we think about them determines how we behave towards them.
Art does otherness well. Art is all about presenting the impossible-to-understand. It doesn’t seek to reduce the impossible, it seeks to distill it. A painter puts perception itself onto a flat surface with coloured oil. A poet uses language to get around and behind the limits of language. A composer creates sounds that haunt us. A dancer models space in a way that, unaccountably, moves the space within us. An actor seems to be a window onto a whole reality we never considered before, or have been intensely curious to explore, perhaps without even knowing why. If they do it well, we soak it up. Because we need this knowledge, to keep our fear at bay. Because that’s what we do.
So does Art help?
David Brooks writes that there is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stand mute. But Art does complexity well. Because Art doesn’t seek to explain – it seeks to reveal.
But, then, even with good Art, even assuming complexity is revealed, and otherness is distilled, what changes?
Art is hard to get right, and not many people bother with it, most of the time. And artists react to this reality with different strategies, sometimes with anger, or sometimes with a desire to please. But, as Jø Stromgren says, “provocation most often leads to rejection and cuddling leads nowhere, but in between there are many ways of tricking people to see, admit and reflect upon uncomfortable and important issues.”
So we try to find the in-between. The way in. We don’t hope for much, but that the sponge soaks up something useful, something humane. That the fly lands on the right nose. That something changes, somewhere, for the better.
Because we’re all neighbours now.