I was busy and distracted when the most recent ArtsEverywhere post arrived with its heading “Putin’s Very Best Day.” As I clicked through various posts to get a sense of where the entanglements of Nikolay Oleynikov and Alessandra Pomarico would take me, I happened to land on “Make Problems Everywhere,” “The Restless Remainder,” and other pieces with similar messages.
The writing revealed a dark tapestry, with only a thin bright thread provided by the spirit of the art and artists, individuals who make clear the systems of oppression and forms of struggle that surround us in an era of Trump and Putin, to mention only two with prominence at this moment.
I confess to feeling some annoyance. What was new about all this? It should not surprise anyone that Vladimir Putin is doing what others before him have done—inflaming sentiment against the “other” to garner support. The other is, of course, multi-faceted—the threatening, encroaching West that has the country encircled, further aggravated by a sense of loss of empire and respect, and perceived threats by racial minorities and the LGBT community (possibly arising out of his seeming pact with the Russian Orthodox church). Critics, NGOs, and journalists are lackeys of the West and thus should be eliminated.
Putin’s views deserve no support; but I also don’t want to polarise the discussion by giving the impression that we should support everything the West has done. Even before Trump was elected, our liberal West failed to achieve a record of which to be proud. As Simon Lewsen, writing in Walrus magazine, points out, even if you believe that the postwar liberal order enabled seven decades of unprecedented peace in Europe and North America, it failed to protect many countries from civil wars; to prevent terrifying nuclear proliferation; to stop the West in general and the US in particular from acting as empire. And it also froze in place uneven global relations.
The messages in all the articles I read pointed to systems of government in which oppressors are the winners, and to education systems in the service of continuing this trend.
As I mentioned, it’s not that I expected to see the West in a white hat. I’ve long agreed with Isaiah Berlin, perhaps one of the most important liberal thinkers of the 20th century, who made the point that sometimes an authoritarian government can offer more freedom than a democracy, citing examples such as Frederick the Great’s Prussia or the Austria of Joseph II, where minorities of all kinds were less persecuted than in many earlier or later democracies. According to Berlin, “We should think of freedom as meaning the liberty to live in many different kinds of ways; and we should be clear that this freedom can be blocked and invaded, not only by autocrats and despots, but also by majorities and democracies.” It has been pointed out to me that Tocqueville made a similar observation about America, as did those 20th century thinkers who added the need for constitutional protection for minorities and for open media to the notion of “democracy.”
So with all the darkness, with so much to fight for and against, how can we avoid simplifying the world, polarising it as black and white, getting lost in the darkness and perhaps losing our grasp on the bright strands? While we struggle against oppression we also need to be cautious that we don’t indiscriminately withdraw our support from all forms of authority. Isn’t this also a time to bring the power of the street to reinforce positive government positions? To give them the will to craft and enforce regulations and to undertake concerted (and sometimes costly) efforts that attempt to deal with overriding problems, such as climate change, effectively? In Canada right now, new funding for the arts and an effort to provide space for Indigenous peoples to heal and to thrive come to mind as other examples.
As I read further, however, I found messages of hope. Henry Giroux’s “Educated Hope in Dark Times” asserts that “…artists, educators, and other cultural workers have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus, and challenge common sense,” but he also repeatedly indicates that he thinks pedagogy can be undertaken to provide the values that make a kinder democratic practice possible. And Sarah Amsler in “Learning Hope and Assembling sKin” doesn’t stop at pointing out that because of her academic position she feels “complicit.” Rather, she goes on to advocate for learning hope as a way to “host the emergence of worlds” that are better for more of us.
As Musagetes works on the faultlines of society, we often see this entanglement of eyes-wide-open, and hearts-wide-open also. This has been especially true as we work alongside Indigenous leaders who are artists, cultural mediators, public intellectuals, and guides for us as we try to develop new approaches to building community and culture.
But I still wanted more from these articles and maybe my next path through ArtsEverywhere will reveal it: I wanted to be inspired by the work of artists to create beauty, something that has incredible power to motivate people to add more bright strands in the dark tapestry of life.
Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar endorsed the power of beauty when he said: “In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, discovered by the New Zealand mathematician, Roy Kerr, provides the absolutely exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This shuddering before the beautiful, this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound.”
This was on my mind because I had just had a short, but inspiring, private conversation with Salman Rushdie—whose art resulted in what could be thought of as the ultimate struggle, the struggle for his life—someone who has many reasons to call out the darkness around us. He qualified the ideas that he put forth earlier in the evening when speaking on stage on the topic of “Art and Truth” with performance artist Andrea Fraser, filmmaker Charles Officer, and singer Iskwé. Rushdie was introduced with one of his quotes: “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” When I told him about the ArtsEverywhere conversations and this roundtable in particular, he nodded, but said he worries that Trump and Putin are getting too much attention, that he tries not to follow the constant reports so closely anymore, since it has become a distraction “from what the job of an artist really is—to create beauty.”
While never forgetting that it is there, and while continuing to support “critical pedagogy as a form of educated hope,” as Giroux advocates, perhaps there is also value in frequently turning the spotlight away from the dark threads of the tapestry, and giving our artists support to create the beauty that provides strength to us all.