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.Reuse content