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1 December 2014 Edition

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Art and struggling to be creative in the modern world

‘Domination is serious and boring – revolt has to be fun’

ALLEGORY, COMEDY and symbolism play a huge part in how we see our world. When Roberto Benigni, the Italian comedy writer, wrote his Oscar-winning film La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) – taking the title from a comment made by Leon Troksky (when the Russian realised that Stalin’s assassins were coming for him in Mexico) – he inverted the horrors of the Holocaust to create a story of love and joy for life. He took very seriously the words of the film’s title song:

Smile without a reason why

Love as if you were a child

Smile no matter what they tell you,

Don’t listen to a word they tell you

’cause life is beautiful that way.

The Nazis played classical music to drown out the screams of their victims. Benigni turned this into a symbolic retort by broadcasting Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann: Barcarolle in a gesture designed to engender hope.

Benigni was severely criticised for this film. It is a film that is not easy to understand. This is not because of its comical approach to the Holocaust but because Benigni introduces the audience to an allegorical journey that embraces the political art of Dante Alighieri, Arthur Schopenhauer and Leon Troksky, among many other artistic references. The film is a rich tapestry of human culture and only those who understand what art can achieve are able to see what lies behind the obvious.

Painters like the Belfast-born artist Dermot Seymour satirise the politics of power. When asked why he painted cows all the time he said: “There are eight million cattle in Ireland. Bewildering, isn’t it? It is often obvious to work with the obvious.” But when the blatantly obvious is shown, as he did with a painting of an Orangeman, a crumbled harp can and a cow, he drew criticism from unionists because they claimed he was “taking the piss” out of them.

Dermot was simply painting an obvious scene, yet taking the piss is an old artistic tradition. In medieval Europe, particularly in southern Europe, street theatre artists deliberately took the piss out of the ruling elites while mocking the poor for taking nothing back. 

Accidental Death of an Anarchist

These artists were called the giullari and they were the beginnings of the street theatre we now know as Punch and Judy and Zanni the clown. Giullari were wandering performers, actors and comics who travelled from place to place, poking fun at church authority and rich people. Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo continued this tradition, particularly with his play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which tells the story of an anarchist called Giuseppe Pinelli who police said fell out of an open window. Fo wrote his farce to show people this was a lie and that the police had pushed him to his death. 

But stating the obvious can get you labelled. Seán Tyrrell, a Galway-born interpreter of lyrical Irish poetry, has apparently never been forgiven for his ironic approach to traditional music and using the words of people who saw the world as it is. When Tyrrell sings these lyrics, the sentiments of these dreamers and idealists come alive. 

Bad Luck to This Marching, an anti-war song set at a time when it wasn’t good luck to be born poor, becomes an anthem. Dan O’Hara – landlordism, The Ghost of Billy Mulvihill, drink, The Lights of Little Christmas, loss, Message of Peace – obvious. Tyrrell’s entire canon of songs reveal these truths.

Does this mean that Benigni, Seymour and Tyrrell are radicals? Or are they artists who understand the role of allegory and comedy in a world where the corporate-controlled multimedia, in the words of Mayo writer John Healy, “sledge-hammers its cultural values” into the minds of our young?

John Zerzan, the Eugene-based anarchist whose writings are said to have inspired the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle in 1999, would probably say: ‘No, definitely not, they use symbolism, one of the harbingers of civilisation.’ If Benigni, in particular, felt a need to debate such an argument he might counter using Zerzan’s own words: “The magnitude of symbolisation testifies to how much has been repressed; buried, but possibly still recoverable.”

This is not a new argument. Understanding what the artist means, when the artist’s work is not easy to understand, is why we need art to interpret the world. Art without creative, emotional or political input is art for art’s sake. It reduces and debases the role of the imagination.

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• The role of the artist has always been crucial during conflict against oppression

Can art heal?

In his 1926 novel Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse, the German author, discussed the soul of the artist. When asked to summarise the meaning of his book, Hesse said: “The story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.”

Can art heal? Many artists would argue that it can, if the art under scrutiny is art that moves the senses. 

So what are the implications for creative artists tackling themes that are not part of the mainstream? Does art have a future in a world where all media is controlled by giant corporations, where the voices and actions of creative and imaginative artists are oppressed because their work cannot be homogenised into a commercialised entity that supports the dominant paradigm? 

Has the expression of creative art become another aspect of the social struggle against globalisation? Why is it that the art we see around us is not a reflection of what is really happening in the world? Is it because these images, stories, songs and artistry are the product of the corporate world, the commercial world, the world of profit and gain?

We do not live in a world of warp-drive spaceships but we do live in a world where disaffected teenagers mow down their schoolmates. We do not live in a world that shows the bloody aftermath of a ‘smart bomb’ strike but we do live in a world that shows a Hollywood hero escape unscathed from a cartoon-like hail of hi-tech bullets. We do not live in the cinematic world of constant competitive conflict but we do live in a world where mutual aid defines the lives of millions.

The reality of the real world is apparently boring by comparison with the images we see everyday from multimedia yet real life is much tougher and much harder to endure than any contrived mediafest and, despite this, one element of human life shines through – our ability to be creative. All over the world, imaginative communities are building new futures through mutual aid, co-operation, sharing, self-respect, dignity and especially through their art in the face of oppression and injustice.

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Success of the Zapatistas

The secret to the success of the Zapatistas in the Chiapas is the way they use their imaginations. 

In much the same way that it was language and our ability to imagine that created civilisation, the Zapatistas changed the symbols that defined their lives.

“The Zapatistas have tried to move away from what they see as the tired language of revolution and to develop a new language of revolt,” says John Holloway, the Dublin-born lecturer in sociology at Puebla University in Mexico, who studied the Zapatista revolution.

“The role of imagination, storytelling and so on is very important: not so much as a way of getting a serious message across in popular form but above all because the language of revolt is basically different from the language of domination. Domination is serious and boring; revolt has to be fun.”

The role of the artist, the storyteller, the poet, the balladeer, the musician, the puppeteer, the sculptor has always been crucial during conflict against oppression. In our automised, electronic age we seem to have forgotten the inspiration that singers and songwriters, for example, give us, making it easier to get up in the morning and continue the struggle.

A primary reason for this is that we have become polarised into fiercely competing and mutually intolerant ideologies. This has not led to communication and understanding; it has, instead, resulted in a paralysing gridlock. Creative people provide the means to break that gridlock. 

We need creative people to present us with new visions for living, with new visions for the future, with alternatives to the models that have repeatedly lead to failure and misery.

We also live in a world of competing lies. The old virtues of honour and honesty have tragically been lost and forgotten. Whenever we hear a statement coming from a politician, a corporation CEO, or a news reporter, we can have good faith that what they are saying is very likely to be partially or completely false. The absence of honour and honesty leads to the decay and collapse of nations, communities, families, and individual lives. So, who will tell the truth?

Throughout human history, creative people have been truth-tellers. They have played important roles in countless dramas of social change. Today, it is no different.

“Humans became powerful because of our mastery of language – the power of our stories,” wrote Michigan poet Rick Reese. “We studied nature intensively, learned a great deal about the ways of plants and animals, and built stories around this knowledge. We learned the finest magic of all beings and enriched our stories with it. Stories are our software. Stories are the heart and soul of every culture. Stories define who we are, what we believe, and how we behave. Stories are our most important and powerful possessions.”

Storytelling has been replaced in the modern world by novels, which in turn have been replaced by packets of pages containing words written to a specific formula about the same subjects we see on cinema and television screens – conflict, murder and war.

Today the images, stories, songs and artistry of the corporate world are manufactured items that serve a function for commerce; they do not and never will be mistaken for creative art. 

Thea Gilmore, a second-generation Irish, English-born singer-songwriter, hit this particular nail bang into the corporate drum with a line from her song, Mainstream.

“If we grow up, we’re all going to be famous.”

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