A Point of View: Why tyrants are afraid of art and beauty

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Red petal on black backgroundImage source, ALAMY

Beauty - and art - may seem unnecessary luxuries, but they are as essential to our survival as food and water, argues AL Kennedy.

A while ago I was at my mother's house and - as I walked into the hall - there was a tray set out and on the tray was a dish of rose petals. A single petal wasn't in the bowl, it was on the tray. Without thinking, I put the petal into the bowl because I'm anal retentive and controlling and don't really enjoy, or even understand ornaments. I live in hotels a lot - mostly the only ornaments there will be a kettle.

The thing was, at the time of my visit, my mother was still a teacher, but after decades of pursuing what was a true vocation, she could no longer enjoy her job. She was working in what had been a wonderful primary school at the heart of a highly stressed community, but the school's goals and its generosity, its ability to educate, had slowly been undermined from without and within until my mother went to work each day and watched her colleagues get ill, or take early retirement, while a generation of children with very few chances, had even those taken away. And the situation was undermining her health and, in a way, breaking her heart.

I moved the petal, just to be neat, but then I heard my mother say - very quietly and as if she might be wrong - that she'd meant it to be where it was. And then I realised, of course I did, that at a time when my mother needed to be sustained, she had made something beautiful which pleased her and which she saw every day when she came in from work. And I'd spoiled it and made her doubt it. I hadn't meant to, but by hurting what she'd made, I'd hurt her. And in hurting something she had used to expand who she could be in the world, I had made her feel smaller than she already did. Telling her that I'd done it on instinct and not as a judgement and that it was fine and could be put right didn't absolutely mend what had been disturbed. This was a minor event in the great scheme of things, not dramatic, but I've never forgotten it because its implications ran so suddenly so very deep and because I love my mother.

I should have known better - I'm her daughter. Not only that, I earn my living making things that I hope are beautiful and which, although they aren't me, are expressions of me and of what I understand of the world and they're supposed to please others, but the making of them pleases me, I wouldn't be without it. Which is to say I produce art, or hope to, in a small way I create things. And I'm familiar with that strange and often tender link between a creator and a creation.

But why talk about this now? Why mention roses in a world where aeroplanes full of people fall out of the sky and shoppers are crushed by accident while they walk with each other under Christmas lights - a world where children are preyed upon and where human beings will shoot, or bomb, or torture, or kidnap other human beings, will act within the grip of philosophies turned toxic by terrible certainties - certainties which deny reality and must therefore be overmastering and cruel ? And sometimes deaths are classified as important and sometimes they're ignored. We live in a dark place.

Or why mention roses in a world where health workers willingly risk both terrible diseases and war zones, simply to stop strangers dying - a world where people make living organ donations to help others survive (in the UK alone about 1,000 donations every year)? And this is a world where volunteers clear mines in former conflict zones like Colombia, Vietnam and Cambodia - a world where public generosity can shame government, a world of first aiders and accompaniers and mentors and foster parents, of volunteering, where good will organises efforts to defend children, or feed the hungry. A world where people march and fill their streets to demonstrate their will to keep their peace. We live in an enlightened place, rich in necessary beauties. So why bother with roses?

Image source, Thinkstock

Because I believe in what we might call unnecessary beauty, in art. And an artist would say that, but then again, individuals and groups who have sought to control, or extinguish populations, to marginalise or demonise this or that type of human being - they seem to believe in the power of art even more than I do. They ardently seek out and restrict those intimate, idiosyncratic joys we find in the songs we sing, the stories that travel with us, the verses that sustain us, the paintings and drawings and sculptures, windows and buildings, voices and performances, images that lift us and give us dignity - the things that show us the light in our world and in ourselves, the things that show us individual human beings have the power to create wonders which outlast them and which transcend every classification of gender, race, religion, nationality, age.

Art is a power, and much of its true power is invisible, private, memorised and held even in prison cells and on forced marches, so you can see why totalitarians of all kinds dislike it. You can see why Soviet Russia and Bible Belt America had to resist rock and roll, why Nazi leaders would ban the work of decadent artists, Jewish artists, black artists, of all the untermenschen - while secretly appropriating its glamour and comfort for themselves - or why suspected communists would be prevented from making films in McCarthy's Hollywood, why the Bamiyan Buddhas had to be destroyed, why the Dubrovnik world heritage site had to be shelled, why it would seem amusing and powerful to compel musicians to play while people screamed in gas chambers, why in most years, somewhere books are burned, or why the Khmer Rouge would ban the word for sleep, or kill a girl - as it was put - "because she was too beautiful". The control of our art is very often to prevent us from being too beautiful, independently sustained by beauty from uncontrollable sources - beautiful for ourselves, beautiful for others.

Bamiyan Buddhas

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Many of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban
  • Monumental 6th Century statues of Buddha, carved into cliffside in Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan
  • Largely destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, who controlled the country at that time - under their interpretation of Sharia law, the statues were idolatrous and un-Islamic
  • Since the fall of the Taliban, there has been continuing debate over whether the statues should be rebuilt

If I know I have made something beautiful for others, whether it's an opera or a Christmas card, I become more. If others make something beautiful for me - well, I'm grateful. I may never have met someone from, let's say Indigoland, but if I look at a photograph taken there, or read novels by Indigo writers - that can allow me to inhabit the lives and minds and homes of Indigo people. It creates a type of love. If some force or interest wished to oppress or destroy the Indigo people, it would be best to conceal or destroy their art first, their voice in the world, their immortality. History teaches us that in destroying any group in effigy, you smooth your way to destroying them in fact.

And as a writer I'll mention that writers are imprisoned every year, killed, tortured, flogged, harassed. The Committee to Protect Journalists cites 221 journalists imprisoned worldwide last year. But poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, they're punished, too - hundreds imprisoned, thousands oppressed. Of course. Words trouble, question, ignite. At their best, they let us see ourselves truly as we are - a good and bad species, one worth preserving in a light and dark place.

Image source, Thinkstock

Which means those unnecessary beauties are perhaps especially necessary. Mankind's imagination can create ugliness and destruction so it would seem an act of self-defence to create the opposite in response. We are small and solitary beings and frail and short-lived - we deserve the opposite as consolation.

That's why I often remember neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankel and the moment he described when noticing the beauty of a sunrise could mean a concentration camp hadn't yet killed who he was. Stolen moments of beauty, fragments of art in the camps helped him and other captives survive - even if they involved missing a meal. Frankel believed why we live can sustain us when we can't see how. His writing gives me that possibility. It reminds me that "hearts starve as well as bodies: give us bread but give us roses". Which is a line from a song "Bread And Roses", inspired by an unnecessary beauty on a textile workers' banner and inspiring further in its turn.

Even if all you can do for now is put a petal where you want it - that's a promise to your future and a light. My mum taught me that.

More from the Magazine

Image source, Getty Images

In Munich in July 1937 the Nazis staged two exhibitions - a "Great German Art Exhibition" (pictured) and alongside it, a "Degenerate Art Exhibition", including works by some of the great international names - Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky - designed specifically to ridicule them. Why did Hitler hate abstract art so much?

A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST

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