Tuesday, 23 January 2018

How Art Sugar Coats the Pill

A mixed media extravaganza by Tracey Robinson, which I purchased in 2016.

I am currently reading Jodi Picoult's The Tenth Circle, which has at its centre a teenage rape.  I have been looking and thinking about visual art that deals with the uncomfortable truths of colonialism and racism.  And even the last piece of art that I purchased was about something distressing– the death of the artist's sister.  All of this, plus the daily news headlines, have provoked my wondering about the best way for art to deal with difficult topics.

Clearly, artists feel a need to respond to the ugly facts of life and not just the decorative ones.  Art is basically about communication but it is not enough to simply share pain.  I believe that art of that order may need to be made but it does not need to be put on display.  I'd like to think that is the difference between art and art therapy, which is a kind of exorcism.  If you want me to get in the trenches with you please keep in mind that we also need a way to get out of that dark place.

Humans, unlike animals, are attracted to what we are afraid of–the things that threaten our sense of control.  Art is one way we have of taming the wild forces that we are subject to.  I think that is part of the appeal of pattern, which is based on rhythm and repetition.  I suspect that much of so-called primitive art is about taming natural events like lightening, drought or fire.  The flash of lightening becomes the diagonal slash of a v-pattern on a ceramic vessel.  It is akin to sympathetic magic.  We turn the unruly path of nature into the rows of a garden.

Stranger danger and Hansel & Gretel.

Storytelling has magical abilities too.  It is an empowering ritual, a way of making the unsafe safe.  Perhaps that is what is behind the power of Grimm's fairy tales.  It was a way of taking the frightening and the cruel and putting it in a way that was safe for childhood consumption.  This was history's alternative to bubble-wrapping your kid.  Cautionary tales whether they are about climate change or hungry crones are essentially lessons that we don't want to learn.  Suspense and the possibility of heroism, however, lure us on.  Narrative is as seductive as the come-hither charms of formalism.

Humour is a potent method for deflating demons or diverting us long enough to hold on until better times.  Gallows humour allows us to laugh at trying or dire events.  It shows us that even in our darkest moments there is a possibility of light. 

Pattern, narrative and humour are tools at the artist's hand that attract us and hold our attention long enough to consider the unsavoury and hopefully allow us to tap into some much needed resourcefulness. 

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