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What Is Art For?

Art as a defense against an ugly world

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Often, it is the question of the usefulness of their work that artists return to most persistently—and fruitlessly. In the almost always agonizing process of creation, many artists are usually beset by the potentially paralyzing doubt of not knowing exactly why they are making this work and, above all, who might be interested in it. True artists can weather this crisis of confidence from which, with luck and effort, they can be rescued—if they have it and it works—by the mechanism Hemingway named with crude genius "the innate bullshit detector."

The eminent critic, who can advise us on the worth and quality of a work, is not capable of resolving the problematic and essential question of the social or collective usefulness of art, much less the way it will be received by its viewers. I am not referring simply to popular entertainment, which is far easier to analyze, or the utilitarian character of works of architecture or sculpture, for example. A novel or a poem in itself cannot easily change reality. Nor can a painting, a ballet or a film. Causing change is associated with disciplines like economics or science or "bastard" arts like politics.

But art, in contrast, has the great and very useful ability to synthesise reality and fix it within permanent codes which have the ability to make us see human behavior and the society we have shaped throughout history. Nonetheless, there are very few with the genius, or the right circumstances, to transcend the borders of reality with their work and bring to us another "reality" that is more revealing than the world of facts and history that generated them.

The 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica by the Fascists recently passed. Two months after the bombing, Pablo Picasso had already painted his famous mural of the same name, and in the collective memory, his work became the definitive portrait of war, pain and death. Guernica is sheer horror.

When George Orwell wrote his novel 1984, it would have been hard for him to imagine that, as much as or more than any number of historical essays, he was bequeathing us the anatomy of the totalitarianism, rightest and leftist, that plagued and continues to plague the world. His rendering of the state of frustration and degradation of society was so essential and so prophetic (another privilege of art) that the word "Orwellian" came to designate the staggering absurdity that people are inflicted with by the self-appointed omnipotent dictators who, in the name of the social good, have made us suffer throughout history.

At this particular point in the evolution of the human species, when there is so much talk of climate change and its catastrophic effects on the planet, it is fair to say that never before have so many people beheld the same vision—one which, not by chance, happened to be generated from a work of art. The futuristic vision of Ridley Scott in his classic film Blade Runner has become, thanks to human indolence and the lure of money, a sort of nightmare that we see coming increasingly true around us. That which was conceived of 25 years ago as a metaphor by a fiercely imaginative filmmaker has already come true in the form of disasters, hair-raising omens, and above all, a shared awareness awakened by the clearest image of what the world could be in a few decades if today, right now, we don't do everything possible to slow the economic and even quotidian activities that are stoking climate change.

Recently, a large number of heads of states, including those of the richest countries most responsible for pollution, met under the auspices of the UN in Bangkok. This was, at least on paper, evidence that the fear of a grim and incredibly near future was generating a will to participate in finding a solution, even in those most reluctant to lose their profits. This raised the hope that global warming might, just might, be kept below catastrophic levels.

The world of Blade Runner that awaits us—that of Guernica remains alive while that of 1984 threatens to become the universal condition of life—could still be put off and even prevented. The task is not easy. While it is true that many countries have adopted renewable sources of energy, that certain private entities have begun to buy up threatened land with the intent of converting it into "eco-paradise," that so-called bio-fuels are emerging as a possible, albeit problematic, alternative to fossil fuel, and that there is an effort to build awareness that conserving water, energy and forests is the best solution. Even so, it is clear that only the implementation of drastic measures by governments could prevent or reverse a Blade Runner future of darkness and acid rain.

Maybe the omniscient "Big Brother" of Orwell is destined to play another role, and rather than oppress us might save us from the apocalyptic world of Blade Runner. Will politicians, so fond of controlling individuals, be capable of turning their sights on the interests of those who finance them and demand that they reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, clearcutting and desertification with the same rigor they apply to understand the thoughts and actions of we who, unaware or innocent, place our future (not as individuals but as a species) in their hands? I would like to be optimistic, but there are times when it is difficult. The bullshit detector that saves many an artist is not an instrument that politicians would willingly submit to.

Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist. His novels have been translated into 10 languages and his most recent work, La Nieblina de Ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.

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