The company of strangers

Working in the margins of the arts, I have to be thankful for all the debates and conferences I am invited to, and proud of myself to take up most of them, even if time is always so scarce and if many times I lack proper preparation and wisdom. I have explained elsewhere why I keep doing it: I am a believer in the relevance of a public sphere as a fundamental element of democracies, and I do my best to share my ideas, listen to others’, and learn from dissent. I think it is important to be learning all the time. I am not so naif as to believe humanity has a capacity to learn from History, but at a personal level at least we do have memory, and we should act accordingly, I guess. For me that means acknowledging that, in the European and Portuguese recent past, consensus and silence have proved to be not that big of a help for individual freedom, so it is important to look for divergent thought, for the experience of multiple minorities, for the opinions of non-specialists, and outsiders. On top of those reasons to accept every other invitation to chat, there is another one: social media has magnified our comfort bubble to such a formidable extent, that it feels crazy not to test our thinking outside it. The risk of staying inside the bubble (Facebook but also think-alikes) is more than just boredom and self-confirmation: it is also sheer arrogance. That is why I like the company of strangers.
So more or less a month ago Alastair Donald, who works for the Institute of Ideas, invited me for the second time to speak at an event they call “Battle of Ideas”. It runs on a simple format, but one in which people engage more lively and commitedly than I usually see in most conferences. One of the reasons for it, I believe, is the fact that it is totally about the debate itself, the value of collective discussion, and not coreographed projections of the panelists’ statements. This time the debate was around “who and what are the arts for?”. I decided to try and answer that question in the most simple and direct way I could. I grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote down the first five answers that came to my mind. (I focused more on the “what are the arts for” than on the “who”, because I think one follows the other, and the what is more important.) So here are five reasons I think we should keep in mind whenever we discuss this.
What are the arts for?

1. FOR NOTHING.
This is the first and most important reason to keep in mind. Art is, fundamentally, useless. Unless we come to terms with this, we risk repeating this conversation until the end of times. Some artists go as far as to claim the right to uselessness, and that is just about right. If you appreciate art, you should be ready to give the artists the freedom from purpose that they need. And you should ask your government to do the same.

2. FOR REASONS WE DO NOT KNOW YET
I argue that artistic processes have a lot in common with scientific investigation. Both dwell systematically upon the unknown, both depend on the freedom to speculate. Like science, art needs to be able to experiment with no strings attached. It can’t promise to deliver specific, pre-determined results, its only commitment is with rigour and with innovation. Experimental processes eventually lead to great and complete works of art, others….don’t. It is how we value imagination that counts. It is how much we want to live in a world that has a place for those that don’t know the answers, but can make superb questions.

3. FOR PLEASURE
It is more or less the same as for nothing, I guess. It is because it feels good to listen to great music, or because we enjoy fantasizing, or because we are drawn to beauty, or to ugliness and repulse as equally powerful drivers. It is because some people love painting so much they cannot do without painting, or singing, or…. Some people feel so strongly about something, they cannot live without doing it, and some of those people are artists. (This passion for what they do is often used against them, but let’s not deal with that now)

4. FOR MONEY
It can happen that some (very good or very bad ) artists can make money out of their art. They are but a few, but, hey, folks, IT IS OK! Money has been an integral part of our social life for as long as History can recall, so stop trying to pretend that art has nothing to do with it. So next time you hear someone complain about the cost of a theatre ticket, ask them if they get their beef for free.

5. FOR PUBLIC GOOD
This is actually a no-brainer. So much, that it is somewhat unsettling that governments struggle with it. If you need a heart transplant, you are better-off being helped by a surgeon than a poet, right? That is the same reason you shouldn’t ask artists to take responsibility for urban regeneration, or alleviate poverty, or reduce school dropout. Personally, I don’t want a government to fund artistic projects for kids who drop out of school, I need a government who effectively prevents school dropouts. Same goes with poverty.
Let’s take a little longer examining this one, because it is hardly the only reason why governments admit funding the arts for! Dear Prime-Ministers, what is wrong with you? You go on and on about the importance of the arts and culture, and then you want to tie us up to issues that have nothing to do with art and I about which we have little or no competence about. Let’s be clear: it is not that we don’t acknowledge that the arts can make significant contributions to our public and personal life; it is that those are collateral effects, not the reason (most) artists make art for. Sorry for insisting on idiotic comparisons, but I am running out of patience with this one: would you fund a hospital because its building is 19th century architectural heritage? Exactly.
Are we done here? Good, now we can talk about art.

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