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The Arts Are An Antidote To Extremism

Extremism does nothing for anyone.

20/06/2016 1:16 PM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:54
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When two Polish heritage experts first restored the famed lion statue in Syria's Palmyra in 2005, they never imagined they would see it smashed to pieces only a decade later.

"What has extremism ever done for anyone? Where are its gifts to humanity? Where are its works?"

These three questions are the last sentences in a short chapter of author's notes to be found at the beginning of Martin Amis' book The Second Plane. This collection of essays was written over six years extending forward from the day two aeroplanes, under the control of extremists, rammed mercilessly into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

I still remember how, when reading the first essay of the Amis book -- the titular piece in which he argues that the impact of the second plane was the defining moment when America knew it was not just witnessing an horrific aviation disaster but a horrifying act of ruthless aggression -- the set of questions the author had posed in his introduction came into even sharper focus.

Today these questions seem even more apposite and the answers even more obvious. Extremism does nothing for anyone. It bears no gifts for humanity. And it not only fails to produce works, but often feels confronted and threatened by those who do produce them, in particular, those who create works of art.

In the psychological environment of shock and awe that immediately followed 9/11, many statements were made in public discourse that ranged from the ill-considered to the feverishly unhinged. I recall one of the most bizarre was made by the respected German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, who declared the terrorist attack "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos".

After sounding such a hyperbolic note, there would seem little room for further expansion of his theme, but Stockhausen delivered his next pronouncements with increased appassionato: "5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn't do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing."

Stockhausen confused artistic creativity with diabolical ingenuity and his remarks, made six days after one of history's most lurid days of destruction, were rightfully condemned. But, ironically, his statements did serve a useful purpose by bringing awareness to the fact that the very opposite of what he asserted was true, namely that the arts are intrinsically antithetical to ideological extremism. Through dance, acting, painting, writing, visual storytelling and many other modalities, the artist seeks to explore what the fundamentalist, by definition, wants to avoid -- moral ambiguity, philosophical nuance, multiple viewpoints, new possibilities and individualism.

As Steven Pressfield points out in his book The War of Art, both the artist and the militant fundamentalist ask themselves the same questions (another set of three); Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? But each responds in very different ways. Pressfield asserts that "Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction." The artist searches for truth and meaning through investigation, experiment and self-expression while the fundamentalist has been told there is only one truth and those who oppose it are wrong, are sinful, are the enemy, are agents of Satan.

Christian extremists burned Beatles records after John Lennon declared the fab four bigger than Jesus Christ and picketed Monty Python's Life of Brian, mistaking commentary for blasphemy. Out of their fear of pluralism, the Taliban blew up ancient Buddha carvings and ISIS has recently destroyed treasured works of art preserved and valued for generations. On a much more tragic scale of destructiveness were the appalling murders of the producers of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the massacre of concert goers celebrating the joy of music at a Paris rock concert.

It would seem self-evident that a level of government funding that allows the arts to flourish is an essential element in the sustaining of a vibrant democracy. We diminish who we are as a progressive nation when we degrade arts funding at the alarming velocity we have witnessed over the past three years, failing to appreciate the critical importance of a thriving arts culture as a defence against the incursions of divisive dogma on our identity and safety.

After Omar Mateen declared allegiance to ISIS, an organisation of extremists which has done no good for anyone, he went to do great harm at The Pulse nightclub, a place where people were listening to music, dancing and expressing their creativity as individuals and as a community.

If only Mateen had not shackled himself to a repressive, fundamentalist viewpoint he might have been able to laugh and dance that night instead of enacting extreme violence. The arts are not merely entertainment, nor just intellectual stimulation or emotional catharsis. The arts are the heartbeat of a free society.

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