Peter Hewitt: The solace of art in these difficult times

From a speech given by the chief executive of the Arts Council, at the National Portrait Gallery in London
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The Independent Online

I want to argue for the value of art in society in these times; times which are by turns bewildering and uplifting, exhilarating and profoundly insecure. The rich language of art and artists plays a vital role in enabling us to express our deeper feelings of hope, pleasure, anxiety, longing and loss.

Works of art provide us with individual satisfaction: a sense of release, pleasure and reflection. And they act as a focal point around which we can share and dispute meanings. Art helps us to understand what we have in common and where we differ, what we like and what offends us, what excites us and what leaves us cold. We come together around art without having to agree about it.

First, art and terror. In retrospect, art foreshadowed the terror in New York. Much has been made of the link between 11 September and the disaster movie genre. Yet one of the most eerily prescient modern works which denounces media spectacle is Johan Grimonprez's extraordinary video film dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a chronology of airplane hijackings which mixes reportage, Hollywood film clips and previously censored footage. Made between 1995 and 1997, the film is part of the current Trauma show at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art.

Art plays a vital role in allowing us to explore our darkest feelings and so to confront what terrifies us. As the poet Tony Harrison puts it: "Unless you can come to terms with dark subjects there is no measure of life at all." Donald Hall, the American poet, writing about the war poets, said: "Wilfred Owen showed that poetry should face horror directly, terror was not there to be belittled. The very act of facing it, of embodying it in the form of language, gave it shape that was communicable to others and so made the terror controllable."

Millions of us choose to engage with forms of art that terrify us. From Beowulf to King Kong to Nightmare on Elm Street, we consume terror. We seem to need it, to revel in it. The events of 11 September unfolded like a horror film, but that does not mean we can or should adopt the horror film as our lens for viewing 11 September and its aftermath.

Now to art as solace and comfort. Art has vital qualities that we turn to in moments of confusion and crisis. Just as people turned to the media to inform them about the events of last autumn, they turned instinctively to art for qualities the media could not provide. In New York in the days after the tragedy people came together to sing hymns and songs of remembrance.

Music helps to orchestrate our emotions, and since 11 September, people have relied upon it to articulate, ritualise, and contain their feelings of grief, fury and dread. Leontyne Price, the 74-year-old soprano, came out of retirement to sing heartening spirituals and anthems. Andrea Bocelli, the Italian tenor, sang "Ave Maria" at ground zero. In this country, Joanna MacGregor and Nitin Sawhney collaborated to create a new piece of music inspired by 11 September.

People have always turned to poetry to make sense of complex emotions prompted by events that are played out in public with a deep personal resonance. WH Auden's "September 1 1939", an evocation of New York on the day Germany invaded Poland, was among the first poems to be aired and republished in the wake of the attacks. As one publisher put it: "Poetry is the new prayer."

In the weeks after the attacks, downtown New York became populated by people's art in the form of memorials, pictures and poems left in remembrance.

One of art's most vital functions is to provide a common language to share deeply intimate feelings of grief and sorrow. Art provides a bridge to coax the private and intimate out into a shared, public setting. Without art we would find it increasingly difficult to convey our innermost feeling. Imagine a world without colour, rhyme or melody: it's bleak beyond belief.

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