Can beauty help heal the ugly?

Friday, November 20, 2015

I wrote this piece a few days ago and have been sitting on it, wondering whether or not to post. Anyway, here it is (I say nervously.) It’s somewhat after the fact. Or maybe not.

‘The beautiful is as useful as the useful, perhaps more so.’ Victor Hugo

Since the attacks in Paris and ongoing ricochet events I have not been able to concentrate. My studio has become a place for sitting in silence instead of making art. Even though I live in the south of France, six hundred kilometres (as the crow flies) or 3.5 TGV hours away from the epicentre, I feel battered, along with the rest of the nation. In fact the personal shock has accumulated rather than subsided.

To begin with I resorted to logic and delved into left brain analysis to cope. I insanely tried to relativize the barbaric events. I ‘liked’ the Facebook posts that criticised the Western press for unfairly ignoring the Beirut terrorist attacks whilst covering similar events in Paris. And I tried to imagine what the Syrian people must be experiencing each day. But, of course, acknowledging that other people are suffering equally, or even more, is useless in diminishing the horrors and disbelief at home.

The media coverage here is relentless and everyone is spooked.  A firecracker goes off and people jump and run for cover. A poorly parked car is taken as a sign of a bomb and a train station is evacuated, email messages are doing the rounds telling people to beware of #WeAreParis phishing scams (supposedly just scare mongering, well so far at least). It doesn’t matter that more people here are killed on the roads or hit by lightning or whatever; it is the sheer evil that has chilled us to the core, the confronting realisation of what humans are capable of that is so devastating. Kids are freaked out, frightened to go to school. Life feels totally bleak, and it seems to have hit everyone. Alpha males included. Short fuses and frayed tempers are the occasional giveaway – yesterday’s parliamentary debacle being an example.

How to move on? Or at least cope. The touching little French kid (whose interview went viral online) reasoned that flowers could not counteract bombs and guns. Not in a physical sense anyway. What else could his dad say? I too wish flowers and candles could make it all better. They express our love and sorrow, and empathy and solidarity, but as for protecting us…

It can sound like a cliché, but evil is only overcome by good, and at some deep level beauty symbolises good. So in that sense the little boy’s father was right. The precious beauty of flowers as strewn offerings, and symbolic candles lighting up the darkness helps give a face to our grief, and reminds us that there is a flicker of hope, no matter how bad it seems.

This is where Victor Hugo makes sense for me. ‘The beautiful is as useful as the useful, perhaps more so.’ In our daily frenetic lives, it is easy to overlook beauty in deference to utility and the mundane (why is the internet so slow? / where’s my phone? / what happened to my keys? etc). It’s obvious that stuff needs to work and we need to live our lives and get our jobs done, but in the process beauty can get kicked to the sidelines, put on the back burner, or stashed in the cupboard. However when the proverbial s**t hits the fan, and we are surrounded by the train wrecks of life, beauty is one of our first ports of call; beauty being art and music and nature – conduits for our intense emotions and need for connection and communion. And for the spiritual among us, a call to a higher power.

It’s probably not the right time, but I can’t help thinking about how what I am doing as an artist fits into the grand scheme of things. Is it of any use? I’ve been learning about marketing in recent months – something that doesn’t come naturally to me. What comes up over and over is that any product or service needs to solve a problem or relieve a pain. 

So how does art do this? I keep trying to put it into words but it is so elusive. I am motivated by a search for meaning. I want to make a difference. Art is about asking questions rather than providing rote answers. As Antony Gormley puts it, ‘Art can touch us and liberate feelings we didn’t know we had.’ To help see and feel things differently. To share a pain. To feel less alone.

I do believe that what artists (both now and over the millennia) have devoted their lives to creating (including my seemingly puny contribution to humanity) does have precious, not just imagined, value. Of course art and beauty are hardly ever mentioned in the same sentence these days. 

May the beautiful and good prevail  – relativism seems to hit the dust in times such as these and we are suddenly more on the same page than we were before. It would be nice if we could keep remembering to overlook the small stuff. Maybe then we wouldn’t waste so much time ripping out pages from each other’s books.

Wishing you all peace and healing. 


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