One of the great things about art, and one of the many reasons why we love it so much, is its ability to make us think. Our lives are so hectically busy and our time seems so commodified that it’s difficult to find a moment to really think about anything, so often we just barrel on ahead and leave the contemplation for another day when we have less to do. Good art cuts through that and makes us stop and think for a second. Great art stays with us and makes us think for the rest of the day/week/month, and may even change the way we think altogether.
Art acts as a space where we can explore the things that affect us, the things that confuse us, that we think are important, that make us feel. Art lets us express feelings we don’t understand yet, thoughts we don’t know how to put into words, and concepts that may be unacceptable in other aspects of society. There’s a reason why artists are seen as radicals, why so many are not appreciated in their time and why regressive dictatorships restrict artistic creation. Art moves us forward and allows us to grow and change. It challenges preconceived notions of what life is and how we have to live it. Art is always asking. Art never takes anything at face value. Art is revolution and riot. It burns down so we can rebuild.
The very act of creation is anti-establishment. To make something new suggests that what was already there is insufficient. Regardless of its content, art is already making a difference just by existing, by being a voice telling a story and by showing an individual’s view of the world. Art doesn’t have to be actively political to make a statement, but it’s important to celebrate and engage with the art that is.
Change is a process. Radical change doesn’t happen overnight, it evolves, and often that evolution takes time to really make itself known. It’s only then that we can look back and see what caused it, the small things, seemingly insignificant at the time, that built into a larger mind-set and ultimately tipped the scales in favour of progress. This is where we find art – political and otherwise – seeping into our lives in ways we may not even have noticed. When the US Supreme Court ruled Proposition 8 (legislature that banned same sex marriage in California) unconstitutional, and therefore opening the door to other states to achieve marriage equality, Vice President Joe Biden name-checked the long running, award winning 90s sitcom “Will and Grace” for its part in the fight for gay rights. “Will and Grace” was never an actively political show – its characters would of course make comments and jokes about the state of affairs, and occasionally episodes would focus on various injustices Will and Jack would face as gay men, but politics was never its main game. “Will and Grace” was there to make you laugh and in doing so it told a generation of people – a generation that grew up with homophobia as an unquestionable institution – that gay people weren’t evil, weren’t scary, weren’t trying to hurt anyone, that we were just trying to live our lives; our lives that looked a lot like theirs. Shows like “Will and Grace” and post Puppy Episode “Ellen” made gay people part of the furniture. It’s very difficult to hate a group of people when members of that group are on TV in your living rooms every week making you laugh. And gay rights isn’t the only revolution that was televised. Second wave feminism was helped along by shows like Murphy Brown which showed successful women in the workplace, the civil rights movement was buoyed by television about African American families like “Good Times”, and significant change is happening right now in the fight for rights and equality for transgender people, for whom the visibility in phenom shows such as Orange Is The New Black, whose trans character is played by trans actress Laverne Cox, is invaluable.
It is clear that art impacts our lives more than we may realise at the time of consumption. The phrase “art imitates life” is truer than ever what with the amount of reality television and films and plays based upon real life stories, but the reverse is also strikingly obvious. Culture is the snake eating its own tail. We create art as a response to our lives which are influenced by the art we consume, and then we create new art as a response to the art that influenced us in the first place. It is this kind of symbiosis that makes experiencing art so inspiring. The knowledge that so much of what we see as purely entertainment in fact has a larger impact than we can even see at the time, opens up more possibilities, more debate, and cements the importance of the arts in a much wider context. The idea that life and society as we know it could continue without art becomes ludicrous when we see just how much it feeds into our everyday lives, our politics and our identities. The importance of seeing life from the perspective of a person whose experience of is totally different from your own can never be overestimated. Art fosters empathy and we learn from art far more easily than we learn from text books or Wikipedia articles. When a play strikes a chord with us we are far more likely to go home and research its themes or its influences. Personally, I remember seeing a play about the Rwandan genocide in high school, its name escapes me but its subject matter will stay with me forever. Before seeing the play I had never heard of Rwanda, let alone the atrocities that happened there. I went home that afternoon and learned all I could stomach. Art allows us a space to explore and explain our own experiences for our own benefit and to spread the word to our audiences. Art gives us the freedom to discuss ideas which otherwise may be taboo or difficult to talk about in “the real world” and remains a space where those who are not always afforded a voice can speak and express themselves and be seen.
Last week Lincoln Drill Hall played host to Tom Dale Company’s rave reviewed show “Refugees of the Septic Heart”. A contemporary dance piece, mixed with spoken word, dubstep and digital art; the show explored themes of evolution, societal change and revolution. As a relative dance newbie, I found these themes a little difficult to pinpoint in the movement I was seeing onstage. It was only afterwards when I read more about what had inspired the piece that I was able to connect what was meant with what I saw; which was essentially, a journey through the creation, change and ultimate freedom from society. Seeing these kinds of political themes expressed wordlessly through dance was a new experience for me, and just went to show that there is always something new to see and feel in the arts. Art can make you think even when its ideas are shown through movement alone, even you don’t quite get it straight away. In fact, it’s the art that takes a little time to settle in your brain that often has the most impact. The theme of revolution in “Refugees” felt to me especially relevant. There is a growing feeling that we are a world on the brink of change, that social unrest and political polarisation will at some point soon give way to real progress and an overhaul of the system that is so clearly not working. To see that feeling on stage, expressed in energetic movement set to a pulsing soundtrack, made me a little more hopeful that I will see that change.
And there’s the thing, art can give us hope that our futures will be better, that our world will be more equal and that everyone’s voices will be heard. Art isn’t just the inspiration for change, it is the tool we use to bring change about. The revolution won’t come from guns, or money, or violence, it will come from theatres, from musicians, from books and poetry. It will come from our televisions and our cinema screens, from the galleries and the streets. It will come from a place of creation, not destruction and it will open up the world to anyone who wants to make a difference in it.