In the face of fear: what can art do?

With the triumphs of Brexit and Trump and the recent departure of the much loved Leonard Cohen, it’s time to look to art for hope in an increasingly worrying world…

The morning after Trump was elected and the world seemed to temporarily stop spinning on its axis, I logged onto social media expecting to see article after article analysing Trump’s ascent to power and how we let it happen. And I did see those articles, but what I also saw was an abundance of poetry and art being shared, tweets that encouraged us to take our despair and turn it into art.

I’m not just talking about scathing pieces of political satire. The citizens of New York turned to post it notes on subway walls, multi coloured and covered in hundreds of people’s handwriting. The result is something like an art installation piece, something you’d see in the Moma, or in street theatre, and photographs of the notes certainly capture an overwhelming message about the hope left for humanity. It’s art then, and it matters.

A poem I saw circulated a lot online was Larkin’s ‘The Mower’. His words ‘We should be careful / of each other, we should be kind / while there is still time’ seemed to speak to the people scared and shocked by a Trump presidency and what sorts of unkindness it might mean in the future. Poetry has the rare ability to absorb meaning. A poem might be personal to the poet perhaps, but it’s always an individual experience for the reader. The sorts of poems being shared (see also Wendy Cope’s ‘Differences of Opinion’) in the wake of Trump were short and easily shareable, but also easily printed with new significance. Poets, quite often, have thought of everything before, and now it’s there in front of you on the page (or a screen) describing just how you feel, waiting to show that it understands, as do all the other people who share it. Often poetry is quietly political, forcing empathy from its readers softly, planting an idea, evoking a feeling, challenging the norm and it’s a quiet revolution that’s easy to cling to after bad news like Trump.

And so when I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death, a confirmation that the word really was turned sour, I put on a few of my favourite songs, but I also thought about his poetry. Cohen’s vast body of work matches his song writing, dark in tone, but with frequent glimmers of hope. Much quoted already is ‘there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ truly Cohen’s philosophy. Forefront in my mind was ‘The Only Poem’. The narrator teeters on the brink of despair, but does not allow himself to fall. ‘This is the only poem / I can read / I am the only one / can write it’. There is such a quiet strength in these lines, and a conviction to keep writing, to keep fighting, that we would do well to remember in these current times.

Poetry, theatre, film – art can be a coping method and a much needed form of escapism, but it can also be a weapon of change, and we may need it more than ever.

Heather Nash

(Image courtesy of Simon Leigh)


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