Is Art the Answer?
A few months ago, I walked by a graffitied wall in Paris that read:
"The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."
- Mikhail Bakunin
I have thought about this statement countless times since I read it, wondering how much of the destruction in the world today—environmental, social, economic—can be traced to the unnurtured creative spirit that exists in each of us. After a news overdose last week that began with trying to get a handle on Trump/Russia/Comey and ended too many hours later deep in a rabbit hole with Islamic State recruitment in Trinidad and Tobago, I needed some solace.
Wendell Berry is someone I often turn to for peace. He strikes a gentle balance between recognizing what ails us, identifying pathways forward, and finding a way to maintain hope and faith despite it all. I ended up stumbling on an essay he wrote in which he talks about the promise of art to heal our society, given that it inherently accounts for the natural limits of the system in which we exist.
...This credo of limitlessness clearly implies a principled wish not only for limitless possessions but also for limitless knowledge, limitless science, limitless technology, and limitless progress. And, necessarily, it must lead to limitless violence, waste, war, and destruction...
To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.
It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex...
- Wendell Berry, Faustian Economics via Harper's Magazine, May 2008
Berry goes on to suggest that the only way for us to build a sustainable society is to master "ultimately, the art of living." This struck me as radical and important and empowering. But most of all, true.
To see the way we live as a form of art: what we eat, what we wear, how we interact with the world, what we consume, how we consume, why we consume, gives us power by infusing those seemingly mundane activities with meaning. Art must exist within limits, as Berry suggests, and it also must have meaning, otherwise it wouldn't be art. If we see living as art—a daily way to create and enjoy something of beauty and wonder and meaning within the limits of our lives— we fight destruction. To master the art of living, then, is an act of resistance, and living well is doing good.