Activism as Art

This article is from a presentation made for the Rosemary Bechler Inaugural Memorial Lecture, an event organised by DIEM25, of which Rosemary was a founder member. It took place at the Marylebone Theatre in London on January 21st 2024.

by Gus Mitchell: That music you just heard is a recording of the Aka People, recorded in the forests of the Central African Republic. The musicologist who collected it gave it the simple title: “Women Gathering Mushrooms.” I like that title because I think its literalness reveals something important. I don’t know if the Aka conceive of it as “art” in the same way that now, sitting in a theatre in London in 2024, we conceive of it. Undoubtedly though it is art in the truest sense.

Of course, it is very difficult––it is impossible––to avoid speaking in generalities when you’re using a word as general, as vast, as art. There are as many arts as there are artists. Avoiding abstraction is impossible. But that’s also part of what I’m going to try to say here. That is––that most of the ways we tend to think about art today are abstract. Too much so, I think. I think that art might in fact mean more than we currently allow it to. It might be more than we currently allow it to be.

But, going back a little bit first––to singing. But this is also a song for gathering mushrooms––art with a purpose. In fact, many purposes. To use Jean-Michel Basquiat’s description, painting “decorates space, and music decorates time.” The music locates one singer’s time to the other’s, literally, but also figuratively, the lone individuals off foraging in different parts of the forest to thread themselves together. And then of course there is the forest itself. Every voice acts alone, finds its own line, plays its own phrase, but then everyone also goes together, mysteriously; goes, moreover, with the forest: the voices and chirps and chirrups of the animals all around them. If there is music in this recording, the forest deserves much credit. If this is art, it is also an unfolding act.

James Baldwin said: “Art would not be important if life were not more important”. All art is political, goes another saying. Art is about being a human being, not about politics, argues another line of thought. Yet Aristotle tells us that “Man is the political animal.” Walter Benjamin diagnosed fascism as the aestheticization of politics, but elsewhere observed that indeed, in the modern age,

“the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice––politics.” The singing of the Aka people we might call art but not as we understand it––not as a product, not as a commodity, and not as any kind of post-facto verdict either. It’s part of a ritual of gathering, part of a life-making. What we now call and confine under the word “art” in the west of course also has its roots in ritual; what we now think of as Culture is increasingly inseparable from politics, and vice-versa. The question then arises: why art? Why this inescapable need for it––and yet also this need to justify, or to shield it?

Singing perhaps was the original artistic act. And when someone begins to raise their voice, bravely, shakily, sitting round the fire, say, that voice is dependent on another. Someone else, at least one other person. And when there comes another voice, there also comes recognition, and so, even just if between two people, meaning.

Calling out into the world Dylan Thomas is calling for knowledge and being known. It is the call of love. Baldwin again, tells us that: “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

But it’s difficult for some of us to sing. A big part of this is embarrassment, of course Embarrassment, because we are no longer really raised or encouraged to sing as part of life. Here too, art has become specialised. In art as in politics, most of us are conditioned to be passive consumers, observers and not participants, and this isolates us from an understanding of not just what we are capable of, but of what we are. In 1906, the composer and folk song collector John Philip Sousa told the US Congress: “when I was a boy in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left.” Communication, connection, creation, and recreation are what make culture, and a culture suffocates from lack of voices.

The communal song, chanting in the street, is a process, the collective vibration in which everyone can contribute their part. It is a true, instant intervention in the emotional tenor of any action, in the feelings of everyone. In a space of communion like this, a forest of voices, which can freely hold many individuals, many voices, many imaginations––a structure somehow emerges. One might call this structure, this emergence, a social technology, remembering that the ancient Greek source of that word of ours, techne, means an art, a skill, a craft, something practiced, something, which implies a doing, and a making, which ultimately can produce something, something that which wasn’t there before. In this sense, art, that first singing voice, takes its place alongside stone tools as one of our first technologies.

Aristotle defined techne as “a state involving true reason concerned with production.” An ancient Greek trireme, for instance. Or a delicious mushroom stew. Or an urn. It is a deliberate intervention––in the world and in ourselves. I like the words “state” and “true reason” in this translation because both suggest a subtle upending of what we tend to think of as art––a finished product, a verdict, a value––and true reason, which to me suggests a reasoning, a rationality, closer to John Keats’s “truth and beauty” from his “Ode on a Graecian Urn”––closer to that, than to the enclosed and separated concept of rationality, and indeed technology, that we assume today.

I believe that origins matter, as etymologies do. That might seem a naïve or unscientific opinion but let’s indulge it for another moment. What I’m really trying to get at it is this. Art comes out of act. The act of making patterns, making images, making sounds, making symbols, making words. The act of repeating that act. Again and again. So that these “acts” are really accretions. Many individual “actions”, acts in a continuous process of acting, acts which don’t often seem like “acts” at all when we’re doing them. The acts of doodling, of scribbling, sketching, humming, reading, looking, listening, playing, feeling, thinking, sitting, talking, walking.

Another Ancient Greek word artizein means “to prepare.” A work of art is something that has been fitted together by “skill” or “craft”. The work of art, any art, is a constant state preparation. “To prepare”, though, carries the sense of a forethought and foreseen nature to the act which is very often not part of the artistic process. We don’t know what we’re doing, a great deal or the time; at others, we don’t even know what we want to do. And if we do happen to have an idea before us, or a definite plan to be carried out, as often we have no sense whatsoever of how we’ll get there. None. To make something happen. That is the decision, the “act”, that lies before us. After that––who can say? Read the whole entry »