This week, while the UK government begins to negotiate our exit from Europe -- a severing that so many of us do not want -- here's a passage from Jeanette Winterson's fine essay, "What is Art For?" (2014):
"We live in a money culture," writes Winterson. "[There is] a general public feeling that if our economy is in good shape, the world is in good shape. And governments are praised not by their health and education provision, or their welfare record, or by employment or foreign policy, but by the robustness -- or not -- of the central economy. Capitalism says that society must become richer and richer, that whatever the cost, economies must grow. Once we subscribe to money as the core value, what follows is a deregulated, 24-hour society, where the right to sleep, the right to peace and quiet, the right to human-friendly work patterns and human-friendly hours all become far less important that the right to make money.
"Against this golden calf in the wilderness, where everybody comes to buy and sell, art offers a different rate of exchange. The artist does not turn time into money; the artist -- whether writer, painter, musician -- turns time into energy, time into intensity, time into vision. And the exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind -- of energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision.
"Can we make the return? Do we want to?" she asks. "When people complain that art is hard work, they really mean that our increasingly passive entertainments do not equip us for the demands that art makes. Art is not a passive activity. We have to get involved. Imagination always means involvement, and as soon as your mind is open to a different level of seeing, thinking, hearing, or understanding, you start asking questions. Money culture hates questions.
"Part of the triumph of capitalism has been to make itself seem natural -- not only the best way to live but also the inevitable way, the only way. Art asks questions. I don't mean directly, or politically, though that is sometimes the case. I mean that art, by its very nature, is a question. A question about who we are, about what things matter.
"Art stands as an eternal question mark at the end of money's confident rhetoric. This is partly because artists themselves cannot work in the way money culture demands -- that is, to order, with guaranteed results in a specified time -- and partly because art just can't be controlled. It doesn't fit in with any economic models. It can't be predicted. It can't be done away with or phased out or put on growth hormones. So either we ignore it and say it's not essential, not important -- might have been once, but isn't now -- or we indulge it and see it as a kind of charming charity, a sort of ornament to life the way that ladies were once ornaments to gentlemen.
"But art is not an ornament, or a charity, or a waste of time. It is a completely different way of looking at the world. At the core of art is an intensity of experience totally lacking from a money culture, whose purpose is to dilute every other value to below the value of itself. Art wants you to concentrate; money wants you to dissipate. Far from being about hard work, a money culture is about incredible waste of effort, as people labor for no other purpose than to make more of the same: money. You can waste your life, but money has to be saved -- because money is precious and life is not.
"But what can art do for us, in a world of corporate culture? Isn't it just temporary relief, or escapism?
"When I sit down to read a book without interruption or to listen to a piece of music at home or in the concert hall, without interruption, or to look at a painting, without interruption, the first thing I am doing is turning my gaze inward. The outside world, with all its demands and distractions, has to wait -- not something it likes doing. As I turn my attention away from the world, I draw my energy away from the world. I'm not passive, but I'm in a state of alert rest, where the artwork can reach me with its own energies, very different energies to the getting and spending going on all around me. The creativity and concentration put into the making of the art-work begins to cross-current into me. It's not simply about being recharged, as in a good night's sleep or a vacation; it's about being charged at a different voltage.
"When I read Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Willams, I'm not just reading a poet's take on the world -- I am entering into a completely different world, and I don't mean a fantasy screen. I mean a world built from the beginning on different principles. William Carlos Williams wrote: It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.
"Art's counterculture, however diverse, holds in plain sight what a material world denies: love and imagination. Art is made out of a passionate, reckless love of the work in its own right, as though nothing else exists, and an imaginative force that generates something new out of disparate materials....
"For the maker, and later the reader or the viewer or the listener, there is no obvious reward. There is only the-thing-itself, because you want it, because you're drawn to it. It speaks to the part of us that is fully human, the part that belongs fully to ourselves, not mechanized, socialized, pacified, integrated, but voice-to-voice, across time, singing a song pitched to the human ear, singing of destiny, of fear, of loss, of hope, of renewal, of change, of connection, of all the subtle and fragile relationships between men and women, their children, their country, and all the things not measured or understood by the census figures and gross national product.
"Art slips through, and us with it -- slips past the border police and the currency controls, to talk as we've always wanted to, about matters of the spirit and the heart, to imagine a world not dominated by numbers, to find in colors and poetry and sand an equivalence to our deepest feelings, a language for who we are."
Words: The passage above is from "What is Art For?" by Jeanette Winterson, published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning's encounter with our local herd of Dartmoor ponies. They often come down from the moor to shelter their foals on the slope of the village Commons. A related post: Art, the Marketplace, and Narrative Loss.