On Art as a Weapon
“Gimme a country where I can be free Don't need the unions strangling me Keep me in exile the rest of my days Burn me in hell but as long as it pays Art for art’s sake Money for God’s sake”
- 10cc, “Art for Art’s Sake”
One night in January 2014, when my mother thought I was preparing for my high school final exams, I watched the Indian film Party (1984). This chamber drama about the artist’s role in society takes place at a soirée during which the guests – most of them artists and sophisticates – realise they are trapped in their own personal and professional hell. I was a seventeen-year-old who would soon have to choose between engineering and English literature, and it changed my life.
Party is brimming with ideas and only a dissertation can do it justice, but one of its recurring themes seems particularly pertinent in these times: art as a weapon, or more generally as a force of change. Despite the inelegant subtitles, this five-minute clip shows the discussion in all its knotty glory:
I bring this up because, while mulling over the state of the world recently, I had one of those epiphanies that most people have only when they aren’t sober:
The ultimate aim of art is to become irrelevant.
Or, since everything sounds more dignified in another language:
Vita brevis ars breviori.
(Life is short, art is shorter.)
Granted, this flies in the face of all conventional notions of Art with a capital A. For Art must have a Point. It must either deal with an Issue or (preferably) exist without reference to anything but itself. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if it was Beautiful. Only then can Art be Important and Timeless.
But if any work of art is all these things – which is a long-winded way of saying it is relevant – it is because we need it to address an as yet unresolved problem. Thus, the only proof that the work has resulted in change for the better is that the problem no longer exists in any form – which means the work in question is now neither valid nor useful.
While that sounds suspiciously like Oscar Wilde’s dictum 'All art is quite useless,' there is a crucial difference. Not only did Wilde and his fellow Aesthetes believe that Art shouldn't have a moral and/or social function (as opposed to the Utilitarians), but they also held Art to be superior to Life – and their view has persisted, because Life imitates Art far more often than Art imitates Life. (How different – or not – is mainstream entertainment from the news, especially in the hands of industries that aim to “give them what they want”?) This is best observed in satires: if they all served their purpose, only the self-referential kind would survive – but in these post-post-postmodern times when nothing can safely be taken at face value, everything is satire.
All of which leads me to believe that art is great at drawing attention to problems but not necessarily at solving them; it is more likely to be a palliative than a cure, particularly if it doesn't involve words or visuals (here's looking at you, instrumental music). This also means there is no functional difference between the ridiculous and the sublime, or indeed between high art and low art. Such labels only make art (and artists!) seem important; all art helps its consumers – and I write ‘consumers’ because art is, after all, a product – temporarily forget themselves.
No art is made in a vacuum, and no artist lives in one: as a professor of mine once said, you have to make a living before you can make a statement. (It struck me about two years ago that I am only slightly better at writing music than at cleaning the bathroom – and how often would you need a composer rather than a plumber?) This has had an unfortunate, and unfortunately wide-ranging, consequence: art is shrouded in secrecy because we artists ourselves can't quite figure it out, and we tend to make either a virtue or an industry of this inability. We give one another degrees and awards, spew jargon at all and sundry, and generally perpetuate the misery (as Frank Zappa said of composition programs). Do we do any of this, if not to feel superior, then at least to feel better about ourselves? Is art irrelevant to begin with? Are artists?
And that brings me back to the core question of Party: do we create to make a change, or do we create merely because we can't not? If listening to every single song that ever topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart has taught me anything, it's that art doesn’t change. And that’s because humanity doesn’t change either.
So is art a weapon?
It’s more likely a weapon detector.