Art Reflects A Permacrisis and Inspires Peace

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Seascape paper collage with vintage textile image by A Howse

As humans we all have so much in common both in terms of our physical and emotional needs. In his book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ Yuval Noah Harari writes about how it is our ability to cooperate and work as a team that has been key to our success as a species of homo sapiens. (1)

Jo Cox a British Labour MP that was tragically murdered in 2016 (by a political terrorist) after her first term in parliament is remembered for saying in a speech in parliament “We are far more united than the things that divide us.” (2)

Internationally over the last few decades the progress made in ensuring access to education and laws to ensure equality and respecting human rights across the world has been cause for much optimism. In his book ‘Factfulness’ Hans Rosling writes how ‘the world is better than we think’ according to the latest global government statistics. (3)

However, there is no doubt there a lot more work to be done to dispel racism and create a ‘level playing field’ for women in the boardroom for example. There are reasons to be positive about the direction our world is heading in despite our global economic and environmental challenges.

Eco summits well attended by global leaders such as the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last Autumn, also called COP26, offer some hope that over time many countries can agree on goals to mitigate the effects of climate change. Advances in technology that develop new ways to prevent and treat chronic illnesses, provide better ways to more efficiently grow food, transport people and distribute goods and services show our increasingly sophisticated progress. (4)

Impressively quick vaccine development for fighting the spread of the SARS virus Covid19 has ensured that the number of deaths due to the pandemic has been greatly reduced. After the legally decreed lockdowns and vaccine programmes of 2020 and 2021, many Western countries are now continuing on with a return to the more usual regulation free working and studying practices again, as part of the ‘new normal’ this Spring.

The democratization of media and commerce made possible worldwide by the development of the internet has enabled many millions of families to obtain affordable access to information, education and the option to build small businesses and organisations online.

None of our leaders in the West are angels and sometimes difficult decisions have to be made by politicians in order to depose aggressive and dangerous dictators. Even in our recent history in the UK our Prime Minister has been known to support invading other countries to find weapons of mass destruction that in retrospect, no proof was ever found that these threatening armaments ever existed.

The news is full of war and destruction this month as one ‘democratic’ super power invades another smaller democratically elected neighbouring country. Russia’s ‘special operation’ is misleading disorganised, old fashioned and uncool and would be as embarrassingly cringeworthy as ‘dad dancing’ in public, if nobody was dying and it wasn’t all so upsetting, awful and violent.

Lines of tanks and artillery seem, to a 21st century digital generation, as an archaic way to attempt to resolve any conflict. This war is scarily reminiscent of a bygone barbaric era. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was commonly a held power strategy that a war was necessary to help rally the nation behind any imperial leader looking to expand his or her empire with military brute force. Once again in 2022 the west is unavoidably involved in a war in Europe, despite our sophisticated trading agreements and the enduring international collaborations of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation NATO. (5)

There are challenges to the ideological principles of democracy, freedom to uphold sovereignty and human rights for the world’s leaders to consider. In addition to sticking to our values and living by example governments have to balance carefully deciding where the energy to fuel our homes and drive our businesses is sourced. Although these are politically ‘dark days’ there is some new light on the horizon, in the form of uplifting creativity which can be found in our major cities and many of our communities today.

Just imagine
Art reflects life and celebrates and criticises the societies we live in. This season we have been inspired by the progression of the ‘Imagine’ project by Yoko Ono that develops the ideas from John Lennon’s song for peace from 1971 originally inspired by Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit. The song is controversial in terms of overly idealistic and some would say radically political lyrical content.

‘Imagine’ has also been criticised and according to the editor at ‘RadioX’ (an online music magazine) Lennon is being somewhat hypocritical as the couple were successfully living in a mansion by the time he wrote this hit record. Either way ‘Imagine’ is “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional and anti-capitalistic.” in its message which still resonates today as a peace anthem that motivates us all to find ways to live together in harmony. (6)

Last month Trafalgar Square was lit up with Yoko Ono’s Imagine logo which gave Londoner’s cause to pause and think about our values and the possibilities for positive outcomes in this world which is often full of conflict and aggression. This is as our leaders in Westminster as well as Nato and the EU rushed to provide military solutions and armaments to quash the violent Russian invasion of Ukraine. (7)

At a moment in history where peaceful solutions are needed as soon as possible we cannot overlook this powerful call by the artistic community to look at the bigger picture and resolve to find new ways to live together in harmony. Looking after our planet together in many ways is our number 1 priority. We all live here and we all depend on each other for being able to live in a peaceful and fruitful environment.

For years watching the Eurovision Song contest has been an opportunity to celebrate friendly ‘European plus friends’ competitiveness, in a semi-organised show of cultural diversity. The result was an entertaining all-inclusive camp cultural festival of creative eccentricity. The amusingly strategic ‘political’ voting by the time most people had had too much to drink to care is an added feature. Music is powerful, it can unite and it can divide us.

It is no coincidence that over the last few years we have seen in the media moments of creativity, joyous music and dance break through the darkness and despair of some awful situations, both during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and also during the conflict in Ukraine.

Some examples during the pandemic have been: choirs finding technological ways to perform songs on zoom during lockdown. Rainbows and murals appearing across residential homes and gardens, musicians playing in blocks of flats to residents unable to leave their homes in order to slow the spread of coronavirus, online disco dancing events for kitchen dancefloor ‘nights in’, weekly ‘clapping for key workers’ in England, the rise in popularity of learning new instruments and creative hobbies.

Grand pianos playing in bomb blasted apartment blocks are hauntingly and beautiful. Brave orchestras playing in the Ukrainian metro stations are poignantly comforting and positively inspiring. Soldiers and locals dancing in war-torn streets whilst playing any musical instruments that they have to hand, keep their spirits raised, under the most impossible of circumstances.

On the TV news we see the colourful handmade Easter egg decorations that children have made for soldiers to hang around the temporary military forest camps, as they prepare for the next battle with invading Russian forces. As well as providing some normality and cheer in the otherwise depressing circumstances of army life defending your country from invaders, there is an eerie irony as these naïve painted circles are bright, bold and full of the hope, love and forgiveness associated with the important religious festival of Easter. Easter is the most important occasion in the religious calendar for all Christians. More than 70% of men and women in both Ukraine and Russia involved in this war identify as Orthodox Christians. (8)

Pin your colours to the mast

Flags were originally invented so army’s and navy’s could see who was ‘friend and who was foe’ during battles. Despite living in a digital age where nearly all of us carry devices that can record video, simple geometric symbolism in primary hues is still very visually powerful. In 2022 the power of flags and emblems to represent and identify geographical nations cannot be underestimated. The turquoise and gold colours of the Ukranian flag can be seen flying on flagpoles in many gardens and on buildings across Great Britain and beyond.

Globally on social media many thousands of individuals and businesses have chosen to include their chosen national flags and also the ones for the nations and organisations that they feel some sympathy with and allegiance to in order to accompany their new post updates and profile pages with impactful images. ‘Political Pink’ has been a powerful shade that has appeared on everything from fashion suiting to charity campaigns and protest movements.

The power of art in all its forms to lift weary hearts and spirits is amazing. Our ability to form complex and beautiful music demonstrates our civilisation and progression as a sophisticated society. A society that embraces creativity can progress with cooperation advanced technology to leave defensive barbaric and animalistic behaviour behind and behave with reason, compassion and sensitivity with our family and friends and also importantly, our neighbours.

This month at the Venice Biennale art festival Damian Hurst exhibited a blue and gold Ukrainian flag surrounded by butterflies. The Guardian writes how the Venetian Scuola Grande della Misericordia building “is adorned with blue and yellow banners emblazoned with the words ‘we are defending our freedom’ in the handwriting of the Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Ukrainian artist Makov presents a sculpture made of 78 bronze funnels entitled ‘Fountain of Exhaustion’. (9)

If we were all the same it would be boring

In the UK, Europe and all around the globe countries across all the continents are full of cultural diversity and wonderful individual variations in art, music, food, textiles, fashion, dance, language, sport, religious rituals, architecture, history, geography and occupation. If ‘variety is the spice of life’ it is these differences that provide the interest, inspire the curiosity to learn and give the excitement to travelling abroad.

We must celebrate these unique cultural traditions and use art to allow us to imagine a better world. Art can help us to reflect the desire for peace in society and also help create the possibility for more diplomatic solutions, agreements and harmony in the future. This week the British Broadcasting Company BBC has reported that price rises are directly linked to this preventable ongoing conflict occurring in a normally primarily agricultural country in Eastern Europe.

Once initial diplomacy is underway, art, design, dance and music can provide an excellent backdrop to diplomatic meetings. Art can convey emotions both serious, sad and solemn as well as positive and hopeful. The Olympic opening ceremony in London in 2012 is a fabulous example of celebrating culture and communicating our values.

We can see how embracing art as a useful tool in the toolbox of ‘rising above hate’ and designing ‘peaceful solutions’ will definitely be for the practical and psychological benefit of everyone living on this planet today, as well as for taking care of the environment that future generations will inherit.

(1) ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari, Buy at Waterstones, 23 April 2022 Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Buy at Waterstones

(2) ‘5th Anniversary of Jo Cox’s Maiden Speech’ Jo Cox Foundation, 3 June 2020 5th Anniversary Jo Cox Maiden Speech’ Jo Cox Foundation

(3) ‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think.’’ Hans Rosling, Buy at Waterstones, 23 April 2022 Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world by Hans Rosling, Buy at Waterstones

(4) ‘Delivering the Glasgow Climate Pact’ UKCOP, UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021, 23 April 2022 ‘Delivering the Glasgow Climate Pact’ UKCOP, UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021

(5) NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 23 April 2022 NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization

(6) ‘Why John Lennon’s Imagine is more than just a peace anthem.’ RadioX, 5 January 2022 https://www.radiox.co.uk/artists/john-lennon/john-lennon-imagine-meaning-behind-the-song/

(7) Yoko Ono on twitter, 23 April 2022 Yoko Ono on twitter

(8) Split between Ukranian, Russian churches shows political importance of Orthodox Christianity’ by David Masci, Pew Research, 14 January 2019 (8) ‘Split between Ukranian, Russian churches shows political importance of Orthodox Christianity’ by David Masci, Pew Research

(9) ‘We are fighting for our culture’ Ukranian artists head to Venice Biennale. Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian 20 April 2022  ‘We are fighting for our culture’ Ukranian artists head to Venice Biennale. Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian