How can anyone say anything about anything?

Recently, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in working with the musician PJ Harvey.  The museum has previously commissioned war artists, sort of artists in residence who create work in response to current or past conflicts.  Now they are interested, after the release of Polly’s album ‘Let England Shake’, in working with her as a war song writer.  Let England Shake is phenomenal; a subtle, angry and loving response to not only England’s past and present wars (especially the first world war) but also the ‘decline’ of England, the loss of empire, and what it means to be English – and a reflection on her own identity in the context of the earth shattering changes that England has experienced in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Although Harvey claims she isn’t ‘political’ of course that is exactly what she is.  Even the instruments she has chosen to play allude to the constant cultural flux that makes post-imperial England so unique. Have a look at her playing a song from the album on the Andrew Marr show last year in front of an uncomfortable looking Gordon Brown.  Watch this video – Polly manages with image and sound to capture a sense of english identity (something I believe to be almost impossible) with pathos, sensitivity and humour, whilst singing about the carnage a soldier experiences on a battlefield.  And it features one of my favourite places in the world: Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Watching this video made me think about how it can be possible to respond authentically to the big things in life like war, death, national identity.  Politics and philosophy fail us here, I think mainly because their language is too specific and, well, too motivated. One way to describe what I mean is that political language or discourse and often philosophical language too is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  Words in politics are weapons, they are used to  persuade, to convince, to win arguments. Conversely, the language of art has no structure or restrictions.

That’s why art is so hard to talk about – what does it really mean to say you like or don’t like something, that an artwork is beautiful, or great? A major branch of philosophy from Hume onwards addresses this issue and never really gives us a satisfactory answer.  This suggests that philosophy shouldn’t be wasting it’s time trying to answer questions that can’t be, and don’t need to be answered.   The Germans in 19th and 20th Century philosophy look at art slightly differently, and in a more interesting way, as a means of responding to and engaging with life that can radically impact on the way that we think about life, the world and ourselves. This makes more sense to me.  If you are interested, you might want to have a look at this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Aesthetics-Politics-Radical-Thinkers-Theodor/dp/184467570X/ref=pd_sim_b_2

or this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Romanticism-Critical-Theory-Philosophy-Literary/dp/0415127637/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298123811&sr=1-7

Art can do or be anything, and in fact (as the philosopher Adorno might say) it fails when it tries to convince us of anything – overtly political art is important, and I am a massive fan, but as art it can lack aesthetic truth because it is merely the medium of a message.  So what about artists that are ‘political’ (as if any artist isn’t…).

One of my heroes is Steve McQueen, who I have mentioned in previous posts, here he is below.  Actually he is linked to Polly Harvey through The Imperial War Museum. There are similarities in their work, in the way that they try to authentically respond in their art without being overtly political to the big things in life that make us who we are. Steve McQueen began as primarily a video artist, he represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 2009.  In 2003 he became the Official War Artist at the Imperial War Museum.  McQueen went to Iraq and his subsequent project was about the British soldiers who have died there. He produced  photographs of a number of soldiers who died in Iraq on postage stamps and began a campaign to get the Royal Mail to have them as official stamps but they blocked his attempts, and unfortunately it has never happened. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/mar/18/steve-mcqueen-iraq-soldiers-stamps.

And then he made the film Hunger, about Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish Republican hunger strikes.  What a brave and inspiring piece of film making.  I watched the film at a special viewing with Seanna Walsh a senior republican who was on the blanket protest.  He was amazed by the the beautiful look of the film and also how realistic it was.  I was moved by it’s loving and careful attention to detail, the truth in the film, the way that it spoke for those who didn’t have a voice.  For me, apart from inspiring an obsession with understanding the struggle of the Republican movement (British people, I believe, will never be told the truth about what was done in Northern Ireland in our name and it is up to us to ensure we understand our complicity in the suffering of the people there), this is what art should do on the very deepest level that it operates.  Art should try to say what can’t be said, even though this is impossible,  it should speak for those who can’t and should explore what this means.  This doesn’t mean art can’t be fun, frivolous or ironic. It needs to be fresh and relevant in order to connect with people.  You may think I am giving art a hard task, but that is, I believe, what we need it for. Both McQueen and PJ Harvey are there on the cutting edge – exploring the complex but very exciting relationship between art and politics.

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