Sunday, 18 September 2011

SSh... Secret

Yes, I have an agenda.

I believe in the power of art to transform society.

In fact, I believe in art being the only possible chance for humanity to wake up from its state of somnambulance. If I postured as an anarchist in my teenage years, right up until a bunch of boys in black scarves smashed up London on a protest march and became The Daily Mail’s poster-boys for chaos, I have retained a distrust of politicians that has made the hypocrisy of the ConDem Alliance, and the platitudes of the left, no surprise.

I imagine that I am merely reinventing a romantic notion about art which lost currency in around 1848.

This isn’t the place to define what sort of art might effect that change: I am not quite ready to be that bold. Nevertheless, the idea of live performance, where people gather in public to share appreciation of an aesthetic vision, is attractive.

In diverse ways, art can be a forum where people gather to discuss alternatives, possibilities. Artists, who generally prefer having enough time, space and money to create more art than gaining  political power, are safer authorities than any number of politicians with a road-map to stability.

Forgive me for a moment if I go all school-teacher on you. Book XXIV of the Iliad, one of the earliest works of literature, concludes a narrative that has rejoiced in a violent idea of heroism with a tender meeting between a vicious, triumphant warrior and the father of his victim.

Achilles, who has been clearly set up as the biggest, baddest hero of them all, has avenged the death of his companion Patroclus. He killed Hector, who had killed his buddy, and Hector’s father, Priam, has come to beg for the return of his son’s corpse.

Unsatisfied with merely taking Hector out, Achilles has dedicated his time to abusing the dead body. Yet when he is confronted with an old man mourning, he understands his own mortality and is moved to compassion.

After twenty three chapters of blood-shed and various heroes trying to work out who is the best, usually by counting up the people they have killed or the slaves that they captured, Homer’s reveal is that compassion is what makes a hero complete. At no point does Homer explicitly claim that the Bronze Age code of hacking and eating and killing and boasting is wrong: he just throws in another possibility that has the power to undermine it.

Of course, Achilles’ compassion makes no difference: if The Iliad had continued, Troy would have fallen– it took Virgil to shine this slaughter into epic poetry for us. But that’s kinda the point. Compassion is an end in itself.

That isn’t to say compassion didn’t exist before Homer, or that this one episode led to The Glory that was Greece. But he did throw it into the mix, give an example of how important compassion is. Achilles became a role-model, not least for Alexander the Great. So, stuffed in there with his swift feet, his young death and invincible fighting skills was kindness.

Art can do things like this. It’s a slow change, but better than another riot in the street.

Next week, I’ll be back to slagging off local bands.

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