“A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Stories can conquer fear, and make the heart larger.”
- Ben Okri
Once again, like every year, there’s considerable consternation as to why we find ourselves back on our usual brink of summer madness once again. Instrumental reasons offered by journalist, analysts and public affairs specialists.
But if you ask a novelist, a playwright, an actor or an artist of any description you will likely get an answer similar to Okri’s. Enniskillen born actor Adrian Dunbar’s speaking at the Xchange Summer School in Enniskillen on the theme of ‘changing the conversation’ last week, gave his towards the end of his short presentation:
We only keep the beautiful stuff. So what is going to be left of us in 300 years time? Some of Friel’s plays? Yes. Some of Heaney’s poetry? Yes. Some of Basil Blackshaw’s paintings? Yes. These are the things that will be left of us.The great German sculptor Joseph Beuys was very influential in the 1970s, his idea was (and this is what plugs into community arts for me) that if everyone was able to find the artist within themselves then as each sociological question comes towards them if they thought of it through the filter of themselves as an artist, we would be collectively making better decisions for society.
All of you are in the business of making creative decisions as artists, because for me art is simply seeing the connection between things. That’s all it is. Colour, form, light, shade, whatever you like. You can be creative in everything you do by taking an artistic decision on it by finding out what the most creative synergies are between things, between people, between departments.
If you are going to make a decision make it a creative one that is based on emotional understanding and your view as an artist, because it is my contention that we are all artists.
The line between creativity and play on one hand, and the hard terms of ordinary business of doing things that keep life going is often very hard to articulate in a way that is communicable to wider audience. But it was an idea I wanted to tease out further with the English playwright and poet RG Gregory:
Art not as a commodity, not as a way of selling soap or on TV, or pushing history or developing a way of making science more accessible. Not as a thing that does something else but a thing that is the thing itself: ie, a creativity that it’s a core process in itself.
Creativity is not knowing …[it is] dipping in the dark and letting all these flesh experiences, experiences trapped in the flesh come up, and open out not out of our will but of their own will, and then the art tell us what it is, not we who put restrictions on the art.
All of this, whether as in the case of Picasso, it’s a grand powerful statement that has a lasting effect on the human imagination, or kids grappling with who they are, and what they want to be and what capacities they’ve got, that is all of the same piece.
Art is a way of laying open ways of exploring the paradoxes of the world. It’s not a linear thing. When I grew up Victorian art was sneared, and I was was one of them. You could see, you could see all these new ideas coming up. But if you look back at Victorian art now you begin to realize it was not so much out-of-date, it was actually trying to get at the truth of its own generation and within within the things said, or seen or produced in that time that there are statements that part of the infinite understanding of what it is to be a human being.
With big heavy earth-moving machinery our capacity to mould the landscape around us is infinitely larger than ever was before. So perhaps this business of creativity, with greater leisure time and more people feeling the need to mould the world around their own particular preoccupations this business of creativity is very hard to sidestep. And yet it is consistently week pushed off to the side, and not seen as relevant.
It’s not something that belongs to the professional, it’s not something that belongs to the person who’s been to Drama School or Art School or anything like that. It’s something that should be in the pocket every human being.
Creativity also has a very powerful social use, if you understand that human beings are deep and have a deep understanding of the lives they live, and the places they are in and how they relate to all the various power networks around them.
What Dunbar ‘gets’ is that all the political agreements in the world don’t matter if we cannot find the imagination to change (in the deepest way) the conversation.
The absence of war, it has been said, is peace. But as Michael Longley has pointed out what the arts and creativity can help bring about is “custom, customs, and civilization”, in the sense that “civilization is custom and manners and ceremony”.
That will require the admittance of new stories, and some form of engagement with what the electorate, whom we like to re-assure ourselves are way ahead of their leaders, but to whom we actually rarely listen.
To close, a song written and performed by Padraig Lalor, who grew up between Ardoyne and Beechmount in the teeth of the worst of the Troubles, and is now based in Wales. A sort of letting go elegy, it’s inspired by a sonnet from the republican poet John Milton, writing in the wake of the Siege of Colchester at the end of the English Civil War: