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The school of life: Is it really about art?
Text by Claudia Galhós

Who and what decides if a creative action, artistic or otherwise, is political or not?

Salman Rushdie’s history with the book “The Satanic Verses” is well known. He was persecuted and has been living a hidden life since its publication, in 1989, after the novel was considered anti-Islamic and offensive to the image of Prophet Muhammad. But it’s author, Salman Rushdie, keeps insisting that the book was a work of art. Being a work of art, defends Rushdie, it has a value on its own, and is not reducible to any political or religious polemic.

Now the story comes to live again, with the publication of his memoirs, “Joseph Anton” – his name while being hidden. The writer’s intention was, according to The Guardian, to create a “realm of polyphony, doubt and argument”, that for its own makes it “naturally opposed and superior to the ‘unarguable absolutes of religion’ and incomprehensible to the Muslims protesting against his book – people prone to ‘mass popular irrationalism'”. Is this enough to accept it as non-politic? In the sense that if it is inscribed in the category of work of art it should be above any consequence derived from any interpretation of its meaning and of the story it is telling?

Curiously enough the question usually is proposed differently: what is the value (for society, for economy) of a work of art if it refers only to art itself? Both come from the same wrong thinking: that there is a possibility of separating the two.

It is particularly interesting this question and Salman Rushdie’s example when we take into consideration that we are dealing with a storyteller, which supposedly means that the margins for interpretation are less obvious than non-linear fragmentary  language structures of contemporary art in theatre, dance, performance and visual arts. TryAngle can be considered to be on the extreme opposite side of a novel, as is the case of “The Satanic Verses”.

The most more evident configuration of TryAngle says about itself that is a project for art and artists for the sake of art and artists. And it really is. So, one could argue that it has no resonance in ‘real life’ or in ‘society’ and no political content. We could even say it is a conceptual project, where artists are questioning art itself and the structures and conventions of artistic languages and exploring other possible approaches to the making of art different from what each one knows best.

But is it really just about art?

The fact that the possibility of research is defended in opposition to putting the emphasis on the market of art is in itself a radical political action. Even more now then ten years ago. And if we go into each project researched within this frame, even the ones that seem to be more focused on apparently more formal questions, it becomes also evident that when it is about art, rarely is only about art.

Let’s take Leandro Kees’ project “The Crying Room”, where he filmed several of the artists participating in TryAngle dancing to the music of their choice. Some of them are dancers, others no, they are theatre directors, theorists, composers… But even if we could say is a dance dance dance project, is it just about dance? Not at all. Is about construction of identity. Is about pleasure. Is about forgetting that you are observed. Is about creating an equalitarian frame for expressing individuality and difference through the movement of the body. Is about representation. Is about intimacy and public sphere. Is about creating a shared soundtrack of a personal life but with some unknown songs…

Is this not political?

Is it only relevant for dance practitioners and specialists the research Anna Nowicka insists on doing in a studio, everyday, going into herself and to explore the living perceptions of what is going on inside her? She persists in going everyday into one of the dance studios to go deep into a inner search. There is a conviction in her that she has to go through that process, over and over again, so that the visible representation of any motion at the surface of the body, even when minimal and almost imperceptible, is originated by a felt and genuine internal impulse.

It is easy to relate this quest with the initial search choreographers did in the beginning of last century, when trying to conquer freedom of expression, getting rid of masks and constraints society imposes on each person. The principal of the search might not be new, but it’s importance and relevance is not only renovated but it has new developments and new urgencies in a time where the embodiment experience of living is with a more strong detachment from reality, each time more intermediated by composed images and new media – what portuguese philosopher José Gil calls “teleliving”.

What Anna is doing is certainly different from what the research was in beginning of last century, with dancers and choreographers such as Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan. Isadora perceived the dancers body as in profound connection to nature, also intimately relating movement with emotions and the body being the medium through with spiritual life could express herself. Nature was a literal inspiration, it was visible in the aesthetic and in the form and quality of the motion she freed in her dancing. But the essential question was about the quest to uncover human nature. A search for freedom that, in a different way, Loïe Fuller did before her.

The final moment of sharing experiments at the end of two weeks of research, as it is happening now in TryAngle, all these misunderstandings between so called civil society and the world of art and artists seem to be what they are: misunderstandings and a problem of communication. It is also related with the idea of education and of school. TryAngle is all this. Is also a school that aims to install an open and shared space where every person involved learns from its peers and in a dialectic way.

Besides being a problem of communication a problem of the values of the society we live in, where art, like philosophy, for example, seem to be undervalued because they are not perceived as having an utility – meaning: not being immediately profitable. Of course it is a problem of the ignorance of the so called leaders (politics, economists…). So it is again a problem of communication.

This could be the start of another questioning, intrinsically related to it: Can art impact the way people live? And should it? And if it should, should it be always? Which could mean that art that does not have that quest as an obvious intention, or effect, is not relevant? In a way the question has some parallel with philosophy.

Both – art and philosophy – are, in their own way, always useful, even when it turns into itself questioning and exploring the possibilities of the modulations and gymnastics of thought just for the sake of thought. At the end, even the more auto-referential philosophical practice or auto-referential artistically experiment has a reverberance in the development of civilisation and opens new possibilities for a future to be constructed through the involvement and cooperation of all living beings. With intelligence, sensibility and emotion taking a huge role.

The philosopher Alain de Botton decided to act upon these questions and created The School of Life in London, a kind of AA meeting, where people go to meet with a specialist to discuss important questions of everyday life. In its site, he explains:

“The School of Life titles its courses according to things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families. An evening or weekend on one of its courses is likely to be spent reflecting on such matters as your moral responsibilities to an ex partner or how to resolve a career crisis”.

It is undoubtably an interesting way to deal with the battle of the generic public perception of the utility of philosophy. It could be interesting to thing of something parallel about art. But by converting it in such an obvious and utilitarian tool, kind of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, isn’t it a different way of again undervaluing philosophy, and by comparison art? Isn’t it doing the opposite of the potential it has to do? It should not be trying to restrain it. It should do what Anthony Burgess said language does: “Language exists less to record the actual than to liberate the imagination.”