Invent some new words and watch the world change

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The power of language to shape thought can be thrilling or fearsome. Wittgenstein said: "Words enable worlds." I love that idea. The Hawaiians with all their words for rain, and the Eskimos with theirs for snow are able to respond to and define their environments on so many levels. You could reasonably argue that the business world has proved itself equally responsive to language. The Germans form a lot of verbs with machen - to make. They are very good manufacturers. The Japanese have no word for "individual", and they are excellent team players. So I dream about the impact of a new language on the business world, words and concepts that are so powerful they change traditional thinking. Start with a simple four-letter word like "care". We can encourage new thinking by developing new words, new symbols, new signs. Apparently, sign language is now the third most popular language in the world. That speaks (or signs) volumes about our overwhelming need to communicate with the people around us. The downside is that we can progress only as far as our language will allow. Look at the bind we're in now, when even the language of poetry and love is being appropriated by the language of economics. When people talk about investments and dividends, it could as easily be their love lives as their stock portfolios to which they're referring. During the Renaissance, the Italian government commissioned a body of artists under Dante to redesign the language, shifting the tone, the flavour, the accent to make it more cultured in an attempt to influence the society. Imagine that as a gauntlet thrown down for our next government.

THE notion that the artistic community could be hired and inspired to give aesthetic expression to a sense of higher purpose and shape a better world is hopelessly Utopian. Still, consider life and you'll probably find that you felt most fulfilled when you were either doing what you loved, or when you somehow saw that higher purpose in your life and were able to love even the drudgery connected with it. That is why I'm attached to the concept of a workplace that is as visually stimulating as you can make it. An empty space is an opportunity to create an atmosphere, deliver a message, make a point. All over The Body Shop, the walls are hung with photographs, blown-up quotes, charts and illustrations. At our Child Development Centre, creative activities are essential to play. In creative activities children can exercise emotions, imagination, knowledge and personal taste. It's reassuring to think visual literacy can be learned, like a language. Start with the basic grammar - colour, light, shape, form and proportion - and you've got a primer for a life lived well. As Somerset Maugham said: "The value of art is not beauty, but right action."

IN THIS golden age of the bottom line, I'm sure there is someone somewhere who is busy calculating the economics of imagination. Thank God it resists the beancounter's efforts. Creativity is like the genie in a bottle. It's inside, bubbling away, dying to pop the stopper. That urgency is what I love most about visionary or outsider art. Prominent among the creators of visionary art are society's most marginalised members: the mentally ill, the disabled, the elderly. As a creative response to great personal difficulty, their art is often spiritual, usually obsessive. In San Antonio, Joe Gomez made a Volkswagen out of wrought iron. He dreamed that he was actually building this car. When he woke up, he ran to the kitchen, got some paper and started sketching. Everyone thought he was crazy the way he worked on it without a break. It took him about nine months, "just like a baby", as he said. In Wisconsin, former lumberjack Fred Smith spent 15 years making over 200 almost life-size representations of American historical and folkloric personalities. "Nobody knows why I made them, not even me," he said, in words that could be the outsider artist's credo. But it isn't hard to understand the popular appeal of Gomez, Smith and their outsider artist peers. They are genuine pop artists. Ordinary people respond to the quirkiness and gutsiness of the work at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore, or at England and Co, the specialist gallery in London. Outsider art involves and touches them in a way that other more culturally sanctioned art forms do not. I like to think that's because it is such a potent symbol of the human spirit empowered to overcome physical or mental adversity. While psychological studies indicate that the most important factor in success is whether people love what they are doing, we mustn't forget that the most essential aspect of both creativity and life itself is challenge. Out of challenge come all the higher aspects of life.

DEATH, too. The best time I've had recently was in a graveyard. My office overlooks Littlehampton cemetery where, with great ceremony, a headstone had been dedicated to the memory of Mr and Mrs Brazil, a local couple with rumoured ties to the Romany. She sounded like a woman after my own heart, so I dashed over in my coffee break to pay homage. The stone itself, a huge heart ringed by brightly painted roses right off a Hallmark card, looked fittingly out of place. However, it was the wreaths, over 100 of them, that were the true triumph. Like a kind of kitsch pharaonic tribute, King Tut via John Waters, they recreated the icons of Mrs Brazil's life: a double bed, a handbag, her slippers on a cushion, a Sony television with knobs on and a chair to watch it from, all made of flowers! I identified with the central premise - the journey into the hereafter has to be comfortable - and I also liked the idea of exercising such control over your exit from life. But it was the creativity, the sheer exuberance of the enterprise, that I really found enthralling. The luxuriant spill of the Brazils' gravesite was an arresting lesson in the artist's vision. It was outside, too.

Comments