The Relevance of Art in Times of Crisis
Being an artist and writer, I end up hanging around with some fairly bohemian types. Recently I was drinking wine late into the night with a couple of petite lesbian schoolteachers, a Parisian dominatrix, and the Japanese actress who owns the Hokkaido nightclub ‘Pussy City’. God only knows what we were talking about–I remember an endless round of discussion about introducing sympathetic men into all-female sexual relationships as a way of avoiding masculinized role-playing, and there was some far-fetched plan to launch the first international simultaneous orgasm.
My own thoughts were far away, and it was a relief when I finally got them all out of my little pied-á-terre in the city at about 2:00 AM, the schoolteachers being particularly clingy for whatever reason. I had things to think about. Are we as a species really on the razor’s edge between salvation and destruction? How does this impact the creative spirit of our generation? And is there any significance to my recurring dream of being forced at gunpoint to gum a crepe wool beard onto Mother Theresa’s corpse?
These thoughts swirled around and around in my mind like thoughts swirling in a large mind-shaped bowl. Are desperate times always upon us? Can humanity produce great works in the face of despair? For example, if Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony (in honor of which they retired the number) whilst losing his hearing, which most composers would call a setback except possibly John Tesh, is this not proof that the biggest obstacles in life are also the very peaks that greatness ascends? That is, if you like Beethoven. Turk Shapiro, who headlined the Salamander Club in Atlantic City for thirty years, never let the loss of his pinky finger during a cocaine-snorting mishap stop him from crooning the Klesmer version of ‘Strangers in the Night’ six evenings a week plus matinees. Thomas Kinkaid is legally blind and yet has become the top-selling painter in human history. At least I assume he’s legally blind. So personal misfortune cannot be said to foil creative endeavor. The springs and freshets of Art will bubble up to wet the stoniest ground, if you must put it that way. But are all great works accomplished in the face of hardship, or can I get a massage?
The Arts with a capital ‘A’ (as opposed to the Arts with a capital ‘S’ or ‘W’, presumably) have sustained the human spirit through some pretty stiff crises. The exquisite freedom of the expressionist painters in the face of an era bounded by authoritarianism, rectilinear thinking, and mechanized war, for example. Not artwork understood by the masses, but a refuge nonetheless for the willing initiate, or anybody on barbiturates. The masters of the Renaissance emerged in times of religious intolerance, political instability, and woolen tights. Before their time the cathedrals of Europe rose from the mire of a millennium of disease, chaos, cruelty, and despair. Imagine the divine flatus that bore up those lacy towers of stone, yet the first good corned beef and Swiss on rye was over eight hundred years away. And people in all of those times thought the End was Nigh. The primary difference may be that the end really is nigh, lately.
I find myself paying bills the same day the grace period ends-not because I’m hopelessly strapped for cash, although to save money I have taken to heating my rooms by friction– but because the world could end any minute now, and I’d love to die owing a lot of money. We all need something to look forward to, as my porn starlet friend Lemony Goodness often says to me. Then she winks in this odd, hungry way and drapes her hand on my thigh. I guess I don’t understand women. But she’s right: we have to hope that the cancer-death of the biosphere, the specter of terrorist attack, and the reawakening dragon of nuclear war will not finish everything. Life must go on, even if it might end in atomic fire or sputter out like a piece of burning baloney. Art is an expression of that hopefulness. Art is also a way of grappling with the alternative, with destruction and dissolution itself. When Dante decided to explore the ramifications of the Inferno, he knew macramé wasn’t the right medium. He turned to poetry. Art. Had Edward Munch worked in pastry instead of oils, The Scream might instead have been The Strudel, and its impact as a testament to fear and isolation in the face of spiritual crisis would have been lessened considerably. Through Art we capture the essential geist of our travails, creating tangible holds by which others may scale the cliffs of enlightenment after us. You couldn’t do that simply by collecting string or developing elastic fillers for buckled pavements. You need Art. If not Art, then art, and if not art, then settle for a painless dentist.
But if Art may be said to be an expression of both hope and despair, it can also be said to express all facets of the human condition. "Indeed it must," as Sir Lew Pullgroyne (the noted London art critic, collector, and bookmaker) was wont to remark, much to the annoyance of Winston Churchill, who preferred to paint boats. Even in our species’ current extremity, what with the failing light of democracy in America, emergent Fascism, xenophobia, six-dollar valet parking, and the suffocation of the living Earth, Art will bloom. The worse things get, the more vital Art becomes, although real estate is still more lucrative. If the Church has failed us, Art still remains. If men become beasts while governments turn (as they always will) to self-perpetuation at any cost, if commerce lubricates its gears with death (it’s cheaper than machine oil and has the same viscosity at working temperatures), Art can overcome. Art can lead the way to hope from despair. We can therefore hope that the cathedrals of our time will yet rise.
Now I must go to another of these dismal parties swarming with drunken minxes that think it’s hilarious to loosen my tie and ruffle my hair until the wee hours. I can only hope Art will bear me through it all. Problem is, it’s hard to paint with a girl in your lap.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org