Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Artist as Insect

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Artist as Insect

Article excerpt

IN this age of violence and strife, terrorism and famine, multinational corporations and global power alliances, we have understandably abandoned Shelley's romantic faith in poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Yet there is reason to believe that without the poet, the intellectual, the artist, the creator, life might be even worse.

If it is always prudent to remind ourselves that no single society in the world dares call itself totally free or totally democratic, I am mainly concerned here with those societies which, having emerged only recently from various forms of absolutism and political oppression, are now groping towards definitions of democracy and freedom of which, as in Czechoslovakia or Germany, they have been deprived for a long time or which, as in the case of South Africa, they have never known.

The territory of the intellectual and the creator is culture: it is that territory in which the private and the public interact in order to transform the raw matter of experience into meaning. No wonder that, in a state of oppression, culture should function in particularly intense ways. For decades, samizdat in Central Europe has provided a vibrant and electrically charged cultural experience. In Chile, when no other forms of protest were allowed by the Pinochet regime, illiterate washerwomen began to record, in embroidery and weaving and applique, the passionate experiences of an entire generation otherwise doomed to oblivion. In a South Africa dehumanized by apartheid, when successive States of Emergency virtually smothered overt resistance, when children were killed and women maimed and men blown up by parcel bombs, a veritable explosion in the arts--in dance and music, in photography and painting and sculpture, in poetry and the theatre--ensured that the oppressed black masses were activated in solidarity and awareness, and that even the conscience of a white ruling minority was ceaselessly assailed and provoked into a discovery of what was really happening behind the facades of official lies, distortions and half-truths. Even on the basic level of disseminating information, artists were performing an invaluable function.

Now comes a transitional stage fraught with difficulties and danger. Much of this derives from a clash between different notions of "culture". And it seems to me that in our attempts to formulate the role of culture in the precarious movement towards freedom and the function of the intellectual creator within that process, much of our effort should be directed towards a redefinition of culture and of the aesthetic which forms an integral part of it.

On the one hand there is the Great Tradition of the West, of a Capital-C-Culture for the privileged few. And how can one reject a tradition which has bequethed to us Sophocles, Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Mozart, Tolstoy, Proust, Kafka and Picasso? At the same time this tradition becomes problematic if it is seen, as it so often is, as exclusivist, deriving from a Greek model state which could afford the luxury of distinguishing between manual labour and mental exertion only because the presence of enough slaves made it possible for full citizens to devote their time to "higher pursuits"?

In this respect a culture of struggle against oppression brought a valuable corrective, since it activated, not individual artists only, but the masses, the whole of an oppressed people. This grassroots culture has opened, for all societies closed until very recently, new vistas of invaluable opportunities. Yet this culture, too, can be demonstrated to harbour seeds of destruction: directed, through the exigencies of oppression, only towards a struggle for political liberation, the field of focus of such a culture threatens to become extremely narrow and immediate. What is not expedient, what cannot be sloganized or digested immediately, what does not offer itself as a praxis, as "a weapon for liberation", is all too easily discounted or discarded. …

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