Art as Therapy: Politics
Problem: It feels like a dog-eat-dog world out there.
Here is a picture about friendship and kindness. The men are going to be doing something important and difficult in the next few days, but right now they are just enjoying one another’s company, experiencing themselves as a close-knit team united by their desire to change the course of history. They all know each other well, but the conversation has broken up into small groups. They are spread out across the room, but they are all in this together. The white-haired man in blue is listening carefully while his younger companion adjusts a boot and talks of his plans. They are a band of brothers, drawn together by a common purpose and devotion.
Who is the leader in this group? It’s not clear at first, but of course there is Jesus — the man on the right with the apron, washing the feet of one of his friends. He’s being subservient, looking after the needs of his disciples, making sure they feel comfortable. Yet, as we know, in the Christian faith he’s the King of Kings. It’s moving that Christ should demonstrate his gratitude without any sense of his own importance — his true greatness emerges from his modesty.
We might, in a way, wish that some of this could happen to us, that we could be part of something immensely meaningful, a society of friends united by a lofty purpose. We like doing things in groups. But it’s rare for group life to go well. We are not good at teaming up. Maybe that’s because we don’t usually have a big enough or clear enough purpose.
Problem: I’m fed up with politics.
When we hear the word “politics,” our first reaction might be to think of the economy, parties angling for power, elections, the person who holds the top job, international relations. It’s not too surprising if we get disenchanted with this sort of politics at times. There is so much aggression, conflict, scheming, evasion and duplicity. But there is a wider idea of politics in the wings. It’s the maddeningly difficult, but noble, project of collective flourishing.
Helga is not so much the portrait of one particular woman as a representative of anyone, any stranger, any person you don’t know. Richter has depicted her slightly out of focus, so we have to strain to try to make out her features. He makes us feel that we don’t know her. He reminds us of something crucial which we normally forget: the mystery of other people.
For all its faults, democratic politics is the brave, hugely important attempt of people who don’t know each other well to try to live in peace together. There are terrible frustrations along the way because people are moved by such different things and have such varied needs and interests. And yet, in a few countries — Canada being conspicuous among them — most people do manage to live with reasonable civility alongside their neighbours. It’s deeply imperfect. But in our eagerness for improvements, we risk forgetting what an astonishing achievement this really is. We should be more grateful.
Problem: I tend to switch off when the news is too awful.
One big function of art is to show us suffering and injustice to which we have closed our eyes — and thereby encourage us to pave the way to a better world. Art takes the first crucial step of raising consciousness, and thereby helps to generate the political will to remedy big social ills. Vincent Van Gogh directed the attention of a prestigious urban audience to the plight of a hitherto neglected constituency: the rural poor.
Of course, it’s not that before van Gogh people in France weren’t aware of the horrifying statistics. The news — then and now — is always informing us of appalling facts. The average life expectancy for a peasant in France in 1880 was 35. One out of eight peasant women died in childbirth. To switch centuries, nowadays the unemployment rate in Greece is 28 per cent. The average wage in Liberia is less than $200 per year. And no one much cares....
That’s why we need art. The prestige of data is fed by the tempting but false idea that “knowing the facts” is what matters. Abstract statistics look clever and serious, but so often they just wash over us. The woman with a spade takes us in the opposite direction. We are creatures designed for intimate contact, for local lives and personal relationships. For ideas to become powerful in our souls, they need to be anchored in experience. We need to feel them, see them. This is what art, at its best, can help us with.
Problem: Thinking that criticizing the world is the best way to change it.
We might initially feel that Monet has painted an entirely apolitical picture. What could be more serene and ethereal than this vista? But the story behind the picture tells us something important about social change, which is, after all, one of the major ambitions of political activity.
Monet’s work was at first scathingly rejected. His paintings were regarded with intense suspicion. But it was not too long before they were accepted and acclaimed. Indeed by the time this work was painted, Monet had long been a very successful artist. Impressionism came to look obvious – exactly what you would expect a painting to be. So this work gives hope around progress. And it is helpful to consider how this happened.
Monet was not launching a fierce critique of the world; he was not trying to get people to see the errors of their ways or the injustice of existing institutions. That’s revealing, because we often suppose that social change comes about by pointing out — with great insistence — just how bad some existing thing is. Monet doesn’t do that. He does not show us what he hates. He shows us what he loves, and tries to get us to share his delight.
He delighted in the effect of fog upon a river and taught others to enjoy this as well. True progress need not originate in anger and criticism. Monet reminds us of something we easily forget: love and delight are central to improving the world.