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Letters from Downunder

A Balance for the Arts

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

(May, 2010) You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it - Gustav Flaubert

The arts - writing, drawing and painting, sculpting, music making - have been around for about 40,000 years. They went hand in hand with the rise of tightly knit communities and societies, and were a key factor in the domination of Homo Sapiens over other earlier hominids. The need and ability to depict reality, as well as abstract ideas, was an essential part of survival, for it helped give focus to the lives of tribes, clans and communities. People's lives were enriched, knowledge was conserved and passed on, and worship developed. Later generations absorbed this, and added their own ideas and discoveries, leading to the foundation of recorded history. The arts have been an essential part of human existence and growth ever since. They were not, as some would suppose, pastimes, scribblings or daubings, but an integral part of growth and stability. Our ability to record history, to let our mind enter into the 'not-here-and-now', to raise emotion and perspective, and to point the way forward are the things that truly make us different to other animals. The arts are essentials for survival.

I grew up in a household where books, magazines, music and art were abundant. We never had much money, but this was compensated for by such things as the complete works of Dickens, Shakespeare, Zane Grey, O Henry, Oliver Goldsmith, Jane Austin and many others. Encyclopedias, short story collections - all scattered through our two bedroom weatherboard bungalow.

There was an early record player, lots of 78's, and a piano which I learnt from a young age. Yet, as I recall, the most popular pastime was reading the weekly delivery of The Saturday Evening Post. Many a fine author was found in those pages for the very first time, the humour was very funny, the sketches comic or biting. It was not a journal to make one throw up. There was no hint of distress, any disquieting stories were dressed up with an edge of gold, and it was considered good, wholesome, and relevant. Who wanted to read of wars, famine and heartbreak? Not the readers of that weekly.

But also in our house were books on art, books of art, and critiques of art. I was a teenager before these came to mean much, but with the end of WW2, the relaxation of rationing, and the beginning of post-war rebellion, I began to find the balance to the depiction of the world as given by the Post - and the Readers Digest, and Time Magazine, and similar publications. Far from the depiction of the great American dream as represented in those journals, European art particularly had began to throw back the covers and show the world what a terrible place it really was. I think it was Picasso's 'Guernica' that was the first shock, but who can ever forget Charles Munch's 'The Scream'? Then I discovered Turner, that great 18th-19th century English painter and his depiction, among many disturbing images, of slave traders and how they threw the sick members of their cargo into the water, chained, so they could be 'lost at sea' and an insurance claim made for such events. Further back again is Pieter Brueghel, with his not too subtle depiction of peasant life - have a look at 'children's games' and be unmoved if you can - and the list could go on, backwards and forwards in time.

There have always been artists who have a compulsion to show the terrors and inequities of their age. They cannot, it seems, be made politically correct, (that awful excuse for cowardice), yet because of their high repute, often achieved through a patron or the appearance of earlier conformity, they can be a potent force in showing people and rulers alike the plight and horrors citizens must endure under a repressive regime. They provide the sword needed to cut through the pap of prettiness and the entrapment of entertainment. Not that there's anything wrong with prettiness or entertainment, we all need a little sometimes, but they can all too easily become compulsive rose coloured spectacles.

Such art as I have spoken of comes in times of upheaval and distress. Once seen, it may reside in the mind and empower the viewer to speak out. Images of the outcome of tyranny, megalomania, dictatorship and exploitation cannot be soon forgotten. They are powerful raisers of awareness.

Of all the arts, images are best suited for this. Writing has to be read, but is the most potent medium - for it can be carried around and studied, passed on and taught. Music is totally aural, has to be heard over time for it's message to be conveyed, but can transport the hearer to other internal dimensions. Paintings, sculptures, all forms of visual art can have a far more immediate impact. When the product is from a mind that has to cry out in protest at inequity, their reality is powerful and moving. Photographs can have a similar impact, but regretfully can, and are, manipulated.

I believe there will be a rash of disturbing art coming soon to a gallery near you. The veneer is cracking. The ugliness of existence is too real for comfort. The dungeon that hold the secrets, lies and cover-ups is near full. Keep your eyes peeled for protest, and alert your leaders. They are still human, and some may be moved as much as you and I. Perhaps we may also see if the emperor is wearing any clothes.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker