Monday, 22 February 2010

Art and purpose

""Art doesn't help anyone," Garp said. "People can't really use it: They can't eat it, it won't shelter or clothe them - and if they're sick, it won't make them well." This, Helen knew, was Garp's thesis on the basic uselessness of art; he rejected the idea that art was of any social value whatsoever - that it could be, that it should be."

I'm currently reading "The World According To Garp" by John Irving (that quote comes from chapter9). Irving's central character, Garp, is himself an author. At this point in the book, he's going through a confidence crisis about his writing. Irving portrays him as a character who believes literature, however determined his impulse to write it, is "a luxury item". So, with the addition of the confidence crisis, Mr Garp feels that he can't even do something of no practical account very well - as we might imagine a purveyor of bad truffles might feel for example. His mother is a nurse, entirely matter of fact, straightforward and practical; so, even when he felt at the height of his powers, we might imagine him always trying to out run a sense of uselessness - the shadow cast by his ever vigilant and caring mother, the role model, the quintessence of usefulness.

Enough about Garp (read the book), but he, or rather his creator, got me started.

Recession permitting - although they tell me it's over - I try to earn my living as a musician, and have done so for the last 39 years. I write my own music as well as performing that of others, so I have some pretensions to creativity. My father was however a very practical man, not without an artistic side, but great at making things. And, guess what, however much applause I get, and however gifted someone may tell me I am, somewhere there lurks a sense of uselessness and incompetence, which is why Irving's fictional author made me pay close attention. My blindness gives my sense of limitation an edge, but not crucially, since my father was also blind.

Enough about me, but that was my next thought.

So we have here a fictitious and a real person, both in thrall to the same irrationality. My head knows that I'm not as useless as I sometimes feel, but "feel" is the operative word. Some kind of home made behavioural therapy might perhaps cure this, whereby I would act with all the self belief exhibited by the denizens of reality television. But I don't think, in all conscience, I could inflict this sham version of me upon the human race. We've all met people who are trying to be something which they are not. I was once close to someone who decided it was high time to become empowered and assertive, when they had previously been quite shyand retiring. This eventually worked, but the transition phase was jarring and abrasive. Someone who is unsure about their physical strength may lack the confidence in their ability to subdue an opponent in a fight. This could lead him or her to kill the opponent first, if the opportunity presented itself, driven by fear of what might happen to them if the attack could not be stopped.
An extreme example, and a big digression, but I don't think a personality transplant is an option - less drastic management is the answer. In fact, I already do this, since every gig I do is a potential chance for a reassurance fix. It's clear that a lot of the motive force behind our irrationalities is personality driven. But, just in case it helps, what of the facts? Garp says art is, in a practical sense, useless and, with my father looming in the background, I know how that feels. But to proclaim that as a fact is paradoxically arrogant, because we are in no position to know whether what we do is useful, or of service, or not.

So, finally, what about art? We can discuss what art is, how it relates to the aesthetic sensibilities of those who create it, whether it should involve skill, like the Latin word "ars" from which it derives. the boundary between art and so-called craft is hopelessly blurred, as is the boundary between music written as a work of art, and music written to entertain. On all levels, art strikes me as, superficially and profoundly, "useful". Dumbing down literary and artistic education in this country is having very predictable results. And if you are content for people, who already feel disenfranchised, to live in an environment that looks like a concrete fortification, the outcome is equally predictable. So art of all kinds is as useful as the person on the receiving end of it thinks it is. Music enriches my life enormously, from Pete Johnson to Claude Debussy; from William Byrd to James Taylor. Shakespeare probably thought he was just a jobbing playwright. We cannot judge ourselves, either in terms of value or purpose. We just have to put our sense of what's wrong with the things about us which everyone else says are OK on the back burner and, as the Eagles say "get over it". We'll be rendered much less productive by worry than we ever will be by a suspiciously irrational sense of being useless, or, in contemporary jargon, "not fit for purpose".