ON ART AND TRUTH
Tuesday, November 20, 2007.
By Nicolette Bethel
Ours is a society of liars.
Now before you pick up the phone to call your local hit man for me, stop a minute. I'm not talking about the everyday kind of lie, the "my-dog-ate-my-homework" or "no-you-gave-me-a-twenty-not-a-fifty" kind of lie. I'm talking about something far more fundamental than that, something that perhaps we don't think or talk about because we have never been taught to.
I'm talking about the fact that ours is a society that places very little real emphasis on the arts.
Why, you may wonder, is this a problem? After all, the arts are a frill, a luxury that not everybody can afford. We don't need the arts. We need education, yes, and health care, and security services like the police, and public works. Some people may even argue that the arts are irrelevant, or things that individuals should choose for themselves.
In the Bahamas, I've heard these arguments often, and I actually believe that because they have so much currency, this why we don't have any real collective development of a Bahamian artistic vision. People are working in pockets, but as a whole, our society is impacted by the arts of other places.
And this is a problem. This is how we get to be a society of liars.
You see, the development of the arts helps keep a society honest. This is because the arts provide avenues for communication. Communication doesn't just happen in speech, and it doesn't simply take place in words. Communication also happens musically, through shapes and colour, through the positioning of the body in space.
The arts, therefore, provide an outlet for the kind of communication that moves from the individual to the collective, that affirms the individual's existence as part of the wider whole.
What is more, the arts provide a medium of communication for our deepest selves: that part of us that is primarily emotional and instinctive, that part we can't verbalize in any normal, coherent fashion.
Even writing, which (because it uses words) is perhaps the most conscious and analytical of the arts, connects with emotion; when playwrights and novelists create people who act in ways that we recognize, we relate to those people emotionally.
When poets craft word-images that speak to us, we receive them emotionally. Beyond that, when choirs sing, when dancers dance, when actors play parts so truthfully that we believe them, we react to them emotionally. And from those emotions our lives may be changed.
I never saw The Passion of the Christ, and I don't know when or if I will see it. This is because I am not sure that I can bear that much truth about a subject that has always upset me every time I imagine it. Everything I have heard about the movie tells me that it is artistic expression at its best; it is the life-changing kind of expression, perhaps because it is too honest, too disturbing.
You see, artistic expression, whatever it may be, requires a certain level of self-knowledge on the part of the person doing the expression for it to be successful. That's the first thing. After that, it requires a certain amount of courage for it to be shared.
One cannot truly paint, or write, or act, or sing, or play an instrument, or take a photograph, or sculpt, or dance, or compose, unless one is willing to dig a channel to the core of one's being and reveal what one finds there in all honesty.
But in a society where we don't provide avenues for artistic expression, where the arts take last place, where they can be shunted aside for the bigger sports story or news story or whatever else happens along, that kind of communication cannot, and does not, take place.
And where we don't explore ourselves, we pay the price. We make assumptions about ourselves and one another that are flawed.
We create realities out of falsehood because we have no avenues to express ourselves and ponder that expression.
Ours is a society that pays lip-service to the arts, but does so reluctantly. We pay service to them, but we don't pay money; we hold the expectation — unreasonable, surely, in a culture that does not question the millions paid to movie stars and gangsta rappers — that creation happens for free.
Ours is a society that uses the arts for practical ends: for the celebration of Independence, to show off for the Queen, to impress lesser Heads of State, and (of course) to sell to the tourists. But we do not use the arts for ourselves.
We do not even believe that artistic creation ought to be paid for; I'd venture to say that there isn't an artist in the nation who hasn't been asked to deliver his or her services "for the love of country". (No one seems to expect that level of patriotic love from preachers, lawyers, doctors, bankers or even politicians.)
And ours is a society that is searching for constructive ways to teach its young people how to be civil, how to respect themselves, how to find ways of expressing themselves that are more constructive than pulling out knives and killing one another.
It is time for us to recognize what other people and nations are beginning to admit: that investing money and time and manpower in the development of the arts, in the training of the talented, in the employment of professional artists, is investing in the development of the self.
It is time for us to pay our children and our artists and our performers the kind of respect that ought to be paid to people who have committed their lives to honesty. It is time for us to invest in the truth.
Nicolette Bethel currently serves as Director of Culture for the Government of the Bahamas .
She is a social anthropologist and a writer. Her plays have been produced locally, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections.
She blogs at Bahamapundit
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