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The Arts in a World Unmade by Terror

I spoke at The University of Auckland regarding Art during a time of terrorism.

October 2002, was a particularly horrible month in that respect: the terrorist bombing in Bali; the hostage-taking by the Chechen rebels at the theatre in Moscow; the snipers who were terrorizing the Washington, D.C. area; and, of course, the steady stream of reports about further suicide bombings in Israel. Reading the newspapers regularly one felt that the violence was all but ubiquitous. And yet, there was everyone I knew in Canada, pretty much going about life as usual. I was reminded of that scene in the Terry Gilliam movie, Brazil, where terrorist bombs go off in the restaurant, and the staff tries to cover the bombed section of the restaurant with screens and proceed with business. It was true that, physically, Canadians had been spared for the most part; most of us were outside of all the violence. And for that, naturally, we could be grateful. But at another level, I didn’t really want to be outside of it—not altogether. It seemed necessary, even urgent, if one was to be fully human, to remain mentally inside of all this—in terms of being aware of shared concern, and shared responsibility.

But for those of us involved in the arts, how should this consciousness be expressed? What sort of response seems appropriate? What is art to contribute to this struggle? Am I suggesting that it is the responsibility of all artists to try to take the selfcritical approach or to choose a particular political stance and then to create propaganda in its service? Not at all, the more important thing is merely that art of an inspired, honest and fearless kind should go on being made. Where it stems from genuine feeling, even art which was created without having any thought of the current crisis in mind can suddenly seem relevant.

The effect of the arts in circumstances of crisis goes far beyond all the possibilities that I have talked about so far, for even the most basic creative response to trauma is already a kind of triumph of life over death. When we devote ourselves to art of any kind, we are taking a stance with creativity and against destruction, fulfilling life’s possibilities even in the presence of death. Take something like jazz music, for example, which may seem, on the surface, to be too abstract to have any apparent connection to specific world events. But the feeling of euphoria it that can be created as one is repeatedly taken unaware by unexpected moments of beauty—“surprised by joy,” as it were—is undoubtedly a vital aspect of our aesthetic experience. Such moments reaffirm our vitality, reminding us that there are things far more important in life than anything that the polemical opposition of one fanatical, totalitarian ideology against another would seem to allow. And where art helps us to feel the preciousness and the joy of life, perhaps we will be that much less inclined to either take or forfeit it.

View the entire transcript for the talk.