Standing Up for Creativity

(First published 10/09/2016 on

As a recent English Literature graduate emerging into a post-recession world, I have spent a lot of time over the last few years considering what it means to pursue creativity in Britain today. The Arts have been a clear target of Tory cuts and widely dismissed as ‘soft’, undesirable subjects by educating bodies. For example, of the eight subjects most sought after by the UK’s Russell Group universities, English Literature stands alone in representing the Arts. However, in my own experience, Literature is still often dismissed as an un-academic and easy option. More recently, I have witnessed from friends how difficult it is to enter into an arts career, with few starter opportunities or graduate schemes in the field. I can easily relate to this difficulty in finding a career through my own aspirations to work in the Volunteer Sector and I see the political strength of the Right as, at the very least partially, responsible for the suffering of both sectors.

The fact that the arts are a vital part of any society has been proven by artistic discoveries throughout history and across the globe. After all, in c.60,000 BC, the Neanderthals living in La Ferrassie Caves went one step further than the current UK government to decide that creativity might actually be worth a bash. The cupules of these caves are an example of perhaps the clearest argument for creativity and the arts. Creativity and the arts bring joy. They bring joy to those who participate in creativity and they bring joy to those who receive this artistry.

Yet, the arts are also dangerous. They threaten the right-wing, which continues to celebrate and encourage those who have always been celebrated and encouraged. Instead, the Arts often give a voice to those who are neglected by such politics. For politicians who use fear to gain power — easily spotted today in post-Brexit Britain or the race for the American Presidency — the arts are a threat too dangerous to ignore. During the United States’ 1950s Red Scare, Senator Joseph McCarthy persecuted a wide range of influential figures from across the arts. Victims included authors and poets such as W.E.B Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg and Dorothy Parker; those from theatrical and cinematic professions, like Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Orson Wells and Charlie Chaplin; as well as composers and musicians, for example Leonard Bernstein, Lena Horn, Aaron Copland and Hanns Eisler.

Those creative people challenged the status quo in two key ways. First, they used art to directly attack the society they were living in, pointing out and questioning the oppression of many minority groups. Through creativity, social criticism reaches a wider audience by engaging people in art’s joy while simultaneously commenting on society’s failings. Just take Pablo Picasso’s famous Guernica, which is a moving display of the pain and tragedy of war. In the painting, Picasso confronts the viewer with an image of war as seen from the perspectives of Spain’s powerless civilians who had been completely disregarded by their fascist Spanish government that ordered the Nazis to bomb them. The visceral effect that this painting has on its viewer is incredibly powerful and, through this piece that toured internationally, Picasso was also able to highlight the suffering of the Spanish Civil War to the rest of the world.

Guernica is an example of how art and creativity can directly comment on political actions in a criticism of governments and societies. However, creativity also questions the status quo through less direct means. Art is an expression of individuality and selfhood within often oppressive and increasingly homogenized societies. The creative space is one in which individuality is upheld, even when it is repressed elsewhere. Consider Allen Ginsberg’s brave and brilliant poem ‘Howl’ — an unashamed celebration of not only the poet’s own homosexuality, but an entire queer culture. It was written at a time when the United States was retreating further into normativity and even the LBGTQ community was tempted by an accomodationist approach to its place in society. Yet Ginsberg is audacious in his criticism of this society as hellish and his view of queer culture as contrastingly holy. As proof of the threat that such creativity imposed upon social norms and politicians, Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested and charged with obscenity, sparking one of the most important trials in LBGTQ history. The outcome of this trial was a triumph for homosexuality, individuality and creativity itself. Nine literary experts gave testimony in defence of ‘Howl’ and its ‘redeeming social importance’, defeating the state’s homophobic charge of obscenity.

These not-so-distant examples of art and creativity’s power to question society continue to be highly relevant in today’s political climate. We must all stand up for creativity in the face of a government that is both attempting to stamp out the arts and to ignore, rather than support and encourage, individuality. Through art and creativity we not only become better critics and thinkers, but we also connect with our own emotions, leading to deeper understandings of ourselves and kinder connections with others. These are the values that I hope for in society and that we must defend today.

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