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Thursday 3 January 2008

Life at the edge : unmaking your mind up

I recently had my attention drawn to a seriously interesting website with, in my opinion, a fatally serious omission. The address is that of The Edge Foundation, and this being the new year, and new year being a time for looking back to see where we screwed up, it is currently inviting men and women, all eminent in their respective fields, and all having recently undergone a change of mind - or heart - concerning some pivotal issue affecting we humans and our planet, to explain the reasons for the change. The issues raised are certainly pivotal, one being the limits to which the earth can go on soaking up the punishment we hand out to it. Alas, the fields in which these contributors are eminent seem equally limited - which is where in my view the site is lacking. They are just three: faith, philosophy and science. The contention is:
that when God is responsible for changing your mind that's faith,
when thinking changes your mind that's philosophy
and when some new facts change your mind that's science.
As I read, the thought struck me: What if some form of beauty were to change a person's mind, wouldn't that be art? Or poetry? Or music? Or is such an eventuality not considered possible?

Some may feel uncomfortable with the word "beauty" being used to represent the entire output of the process we call art, and indeed, it is not the only possible outcome. Some would demote it and maintain that it should not even be regarded as a legitimate end result. And sometimes it may not be, for occasionally the end result will be the very antithesis of beauty. Nevertheless, I find the word to be a useful generic term which can be taken to include truth, though I do not use that word here as it is also claimed by the man of faith, the scientist and the philosopher. However, please feel free to replace the offending word with whichever word or phrase rocks your particular boat. (Some might prefer a more neutral choice, such as "thought-provoking work" or "artifact". Others might go for something like "movement" (in the case of dance), "shape, colour and pattern"(in the case of painting), etc.

So if I could have my way and beauty (or one of its derivatives) be added to the three thought-changing entities on the website, on what issues might it force a rethink? Two spring instantly to mind, two matters on which, if I have not yet quite changed my mind, I am less sure than once I was. They are both old chestnuts - but old chestnuts can be hard nuts to crack. The first is trivial by comparison to the concerns on The Edge website and appertains only to art and specifically to so-called concept art: is it a con; or is it (as I am still inclined to think) a branch of, or an alternative to, philosophy; or is it in some way still in a long tradition of great art in the past? And here let us nail one frequent misconception: the phrase "concept art" is not applied to the end result to signify that the artist is putting across to us some new concept that has just struck him; rather it refers to the process, and implies a new concept of art.

My second thought is the one with which I opened: does art have a use, a value to the community, perhaps even to the planet? Is it capable of effecting significant change in us, in our take on major issues, could it bring about a meaningful U-turn somewhere, in someone? Or is it basically useless in the face of the ultimate stakes of survival versus the unthinkable?

I end on a serious note because the Edge is a serious site which I am sure you will find well worth a visit.

1 comment:

Jim Murdoch said...

Having just read my latest blog you know what I think about poetic beauty, at least what I though of it back in 2004. As for art changing the world, I'm not so sure it is capable of that but, at difficult times, art is something people lean on to get them through. You may find the article at Library Trends about the Theresienstadt Ghetto Central Library of interest:

"Theresienstadt prisoners were literally desperate to escape through reading. Books made it possible to withdraw from an unendurable reality and to take temporary mental refuge in other worlds, past or present, real or fantasy."