A year ago the most ludicrous thing I didn’t have to imagine was a petition launched in the UK for a ban on the teaching of Arabic numerals. I thought it was some kind of stunt, but the woman responsible believed numbers were some kind of new fangled way to, I don’t know, get whatever she thought ‘Sharia Law’ was into Great Britain. I hope this person found out numerals were invented in India. But I can’t wait until she finds out where chemistry, much of ‘western’ philosophy, algebra and astronomy comes from! Anyway, a mere twelve months (or 40,0000 years) have passed. I’m sure you’ve noticed the world has upped the ante on ludicrous, farcical, tragic, weird, deadly ignorant and dangerous. And we’re only half way (plus a bit) through 2020.
As a writer I’m meant to be able to imagine worlds and situations and people them with realistic characters of depth and feeling. Or something. But this? If I wrote exactly 2020 it’d be dismissed as unbelievable. Imagine, if you, as a reader of the novel 2020, had to suspend your disbelief for an unevenly paced style that is overly dramatic but also interminably dull, featuring cartoonish villains doing buffoonish things to drive a plot with too many unsolvable narrative themes of inadequate distribution of wealth, unending environmental destruction, and institutionalised oppression, as illustrated through uprising and reprisal manifesting in statue stoushes, KPop fan alliances, the politicisation of masks, and global protests, all amid a cast of thousands of characters continually getting sick with many dying alone? Life is not art.
Which brings me to art. I’m in an art FB group, where members discuss their creations and tools and techniques and ways to improve. Members naturally then began creating art in response to Black Lives Matter. The images were sad, anguished, yet also hopeful, and beautiful. The comments, however, were another level. Some wanted the group to be a ‘safe space’ where the world and its news didn’t intrude. They wanted ‘nice’ art, rather than political art. I did point out all art is political, citing, as an obvious example, Picasso’s Guernica. But the critics believed their pictures were neutral. They couldn’t see art, but especially the kind of Art (with a capital A) we tend think about as art, was created for a purpose, and the wealthy and the powerful deployed this art for a variety of political reasons. And this still happens. You paint flowers, because you have access to flowers. That access can be viewed as a political issue. But Black Lives are not (only) about mere politics. Art in response to institutionalised racism comes out of direct lived experience. It shouldn’t have to be explained that this art is just as personal as a picture of a pet, as it illustrates to the world an internal response to fear, hate and oppression, as well as being an outward expression of hope and a demand for change. The people who want depoliticised zones away from the news of the day are expressing a form of their privilege: their spaces and their lives are safe because they don’t experience racism. They didn’t want to see and then have to acknowledge the oppression of people who are not them. They could not see either that their hostility to the artistic expression of experiences different to their own makes the group less safe for everyone.
The FB group has calmed; it’s back to discussing techniques and equipment, but nothing is resolved, not in the group and not in the world. But whatever you’re experiencing, feeling, wanting: artistic works, like the shapes we use to signify amounts and to count, are a just another way to communicate. We need to keep communicating. How else do we understand each other? Suppressing this human need only deepens divides between us.