Is the role of the artist merely to praise the ‘pretty’?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 5, 2016

“It is less than honest if we ask [artists] to always make their commentary ‘happy.’” —Jim Hillson

One of our most faithful coffee companions put me in my place recently for appearing to give a lopsided view of the role of the artist.

Jim Hillson, former pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church in Cochrane, now retired and living in Medicine Hat, was responding to my Apr. 7 column, “Mixed media quartet sing in perfect harmony at Just Imajan.”

In that column, as in many of my columns, I celebrated an encounter I had with beauty. In this case, it was beauty in the harmonious cohesion of colours and shapes among four works of art, one on canvas and the others in hand-blown glass.

I concluded the column with a challenge for all of us. “Pigment by pigment, stroke by stroke on the canvas of life,” I said, “perhaps more of us can help the world sing in perfect harmony.”

Jim’s response was dead on:

“I love the colours and images in this week's column,” he wrote. “So I hesitate to add a comment. But I will anyway.

“Working artists and gallery owners need to offer works that buyers will buy. That usually means that they offer for sale work that is pretty, has harmony and cohesion and exuberance. But it also leads to a misunderstanding of the work of the artist.

“I hope that the artists among us are never coerced into thinking their job is to depict pretty and beautiful. I would offer you the comment that the visual artist is like a storyteller. Sometimes the story is dystopic. Sometimes the artist is called to speak (or image) a truth which is dark. Sometimes the image needs disharmony. Artists are commentators. And it is less than honest if we ask them to always make their commentary ‘happy’ – which is kind of what I get from your column.”

I replied that I couldn’t agree more. “Yes,” I said, “artists and writers must not become mere smokescreens – propagandists – for evil. One look at Hitler’s style makes that point loud and clear.” They are first of all storytellers and commentators.

His challenge moved me to reflect on the role of the artist/writer as described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel Lecture upon winning the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature (English translation by Nicholas Bethell).

The Russian author, imprisoned for his literary challenges to the abuses of the former Soviet Union, spoke of the danger inherent in an entertainment-hungry world only seeing that which is “pretty,” lamenting their distorted vision:

“It would see a boggy swamp and exclaim, ‘What a charming little meadow!’ It would see a set of concrete shackles round a woman’s neck and exclaim, ‘What an exquisite necklace!’ And while some danced happy and carefree with songs and music, others shed tears which no hand could wipe away.”

For Solzhenitsyn, the true mandate of the artist/writer is found in that classic trilogy of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. But here, “beauty” is not limited to that which is “pretty.” In his challenge to address the sometimes-ugly and violent – and here he focuses particularly on the role of the writer, although the same can be said for painters, sculptors, composers and performing artists – he says in response to those who regard art and literature as ineffective “against the merciless onslaught of open violence”:

“Let us not forget that violence does not live by itself and cannot live by itself. It can only exist with the help of the lie. . . . Violence can only be concealed by the lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. . . . Violence does not always, not necessarily, take people by the throat and strangle them. Usually it demands no more than an oath of allegiance from its subjects. They are required merely to become accomplices in the lie.”

Of course, he says, every person of integrity can choose not to participate in the lie or give their support to falsehood.

But “writers and artists are capable of something more. They can defeat the lie. . . . A lie can stand up and resist many things in this world, but it cannot resist Art.”

He concludes with a Russian proverb that absolutely supports Jim’s contention about the greater mandate of the artist/writer to look beyond what is merely pretty:

“One word of truth is of more weight than all the rest of the world.”


© 2016 Warren Harbeck

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