How Art can give us hope in the dying days of the anthropocene

‘Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world’. 

– Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward A Critique Of Marxist Aesthetic

Who dares to feel hope nowadays? In an era defined by climate disaster, Covid 19, and the rise and subsequent normalisation of right-wing politics, hope can be hard to find. Recently, it feels like the triumph of capitalism over community is nearing completion, the earth’s ecosystem is imploding at an alarming speed and the dystopian future we’ve all been warned about has arrived.

Feeling hope for the future can seem naive when faced with the state of the present; a pointless distraction belonging to gratingly cheery optimists who are in denial about the reality of our current situation. Why take to the streets and protest when at best it’s ignored by those in power and ridiculed by the media, and at worst when protest has been made illegal in all but name here in the UK? Why daydream about a different, better future when history has taught us power and greed usually win? When nowadays both apathy and bigotry seem endemic in society?

A few months ago I was chewing over all of this and it suddenly hit me; I was becoming cynical, apathetic and hopeless, and I don’t want to be. I’ve been thinking a lot about hope since; how hope differs from uninformed, guileless optimism, and how important it is. I’m talking about the kind of hope that ignites change, connects us with others that feel the same as us, and shows us a better future is possible. Hope with a capital H. I decided I wanted to immerse myself in Hope, so I got to work on writing about hope in contemporary culture for my master’s degree. I began researching a wide range of texts, including philosophy, socio-political theory and contemporary literature, to find out more about why hope is important, what it looks like, what sustains it and where it can be found. There was one place that hope often resides which kept cropping up again and again: art. 

By art, I mean all cultural production; whether that is literature, visual art, philosophy, film or music. In 1982 the German abstract painter Gerard Richter declared that ‘Art is the highest form of hope.’ The arts often get a bad rap from conservative thinkers who tell us that culture is a namby-pamby waste of time and resources, a playground for out-of-touch champagne socialists and snobs, and its value gets short shrift from a lot of other people as well. Is it more important than grassroots activism? Than political change? Than direct action? No. But it is at least as important? Yes. And here is a briefish breakdown of exactly why.

Art communicates and spreads messages of hope and resistance

We can find countless examples of art being used throughout history to impart knowledge and inspire change. Some examples are the Mexican Mural Movement of the 1920s, South African Resistance Art of the 1970s, the songs and poetry that sprang from the 19th Century slave colonies in the US, and DIY zine movements; from their roots in science fiction to today’s Queer zines, via punk in the 70s and the Riot Grrrls of the 90s. 

In her article Hope is an Embrace of the Unknown published in The Guardian in 2016, author and essayist Rebecca Solnit uses the example of the Arab Spring Uprisings to illustrate the ability of art to plant the seeds of hope. In 1957 a comic book entitled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was published in the US, advocating the use of nonviolence in protest and the power of civil disobedience. Shortly before the Arab Spring uprisings began in late 2010 the comic was translated into Arabic and distributed widely in Egypt. 

Solnit also uses music as an example of how popular culture lit the touchpaper of revolution in North Africa at the time. She talks about the music of Tunisian rapper and activist El Général, who wrote and released Tunisia our Country in December 2010. The track was a massive hit and he is now lauded, alongside other North African hip-hop artists, as one of the main inspirational figures of the Tunisian uprising. Every movement has one anthem (or more), every subculture of solidarity or rebellion a soundtrack. 

Front cover of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Sy Barry – https://comicbookplus.com/?dlid=66823, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46904160

Art mirrors and responds to the human condition

If art can spark regime changes and teach revolutionaries the tools of protest, it can also connect humanity in other ways. As a white, western woman living a relatively easy life, I can watch a film made by an immigrant detained in an Australian holding centre in Papua New Guinea and understand better the filmmaker’s frustration, hopelessness and pain. I can open a speculative climate fiction book and experience something of what life could look like after climate catastrophe leaves most of the major cities of the developed world submerged underwater. I can look at a painting in a gallery and experience something of the visceral horror experienced by an artist who witnessed first-hand the effect of a ground war. Art connects us to the real, felt, emotional landscape of other people. It does this on a deeper level than reading a history book or watching the news can, when we will never be anything but spectators. To feel hope for the future, to be driven to change things, we need to be able to not just see, but feel beyond our own life experiences.

Art reminds us we have been here before. 

If there’s one thing history (and art) can show us, it’s that hope has always been there, and not just when times are good. Hope is messy and it’s difficult – it often springs forth from the dark, fertile soil of the bleakest and most urgent of times, as does some of our greatest art. Art from the past reminds us that others have been through the same struggles before. It is hard to apply this to the threat of climate disaster, but even when facing a new threat not experienced by our ancestors, art can show us how to cope and how to mobilise. And nothing will change without some hope.

Art shows us an alternative, brighter future is possible. 

Art has always had the ability to show us alternative realities, and through the centuries this has been used in a variety of ways. Some are obviously removed from reality, such as surrealism, and the dystopian and utopian science fiction which surged in popularity in the West in the post-war years of the twentieth century, from writers like HG Wells and Arthur C Clarke. Although utopias in their very nature are unattainable, utopian and dystopian literature at that time provided a blueprint for an alternative world order for the masses, as well as exploring what might happen if society slipped towards fascism or world war again. There was an overarching sense of optimism then that a better, fairer society was achievable and close to hand, even if it wasn’t going to be on a different planet. 

Afrofuturism is a continuation of utopian thought which gives power and hope for a more equal future to Black communities which is still a dominant aesthetic in the art of the 21st century. In Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture Ytasha L. Womack defines it as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation”. How does it provide hope? It acknowledges an oppressive past and present, but imagines what a liberated future could look like for the African diaspora. Afrofuturism’s roots stretch back from Sun Ra’s jazz/poetry/theatre of the 1960s, reaching into present-day culture via speculative fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and the art of Jean Michel Basquait. Contemporary examples include the music and aesthetic of Janelle Monae and the Marvel Comics film Black Panther.

Sun Ra. 1973. Distributed by Impulse! Records and ABC/Dunhill Records. Photographer uncredited. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Art that expresses utopian thought is an obvious example of how it can show us an alternative world, but all art has this ability. It doesn’t have to stick to the rules, it can bend and play with time and space; art and culture take us out of the everyday. Art opens up spaces where an alternative future is glimpsed, or maybe an old dream for the future that we have forgotten existed.  It is also about that weird mixture of elation, longing and connection you feel at a gig when the band drops the first bar of your favourite song and everyone goes crazy. The moment a sentence in a novel clicks into place and you glimpse an understanding of something fundamental you can’t quite pin down. When a painting briefly speaks to you. These moments are where hope resides, even if they are fleeting.

Saying all of this, hope may show us the way forward, but it does nothing further without action. Raising your hands in the air and hugging the stranger next to you when a particularly heavenly beat drops, then going home and trolling some poor soul on Twitter does nothing to enact change. Nor does reading a climate fiction book then throwing all your plastic waste in landfill. The 20th-century critic and philosopher Ernst Bloch, along with his close friend Walter Benjamin, both knew this. They were German Jews who saw first-hand the rise of fascism in Europe, so know something of the importance to the human race of keeping hope alive. Bloch insisted that hope was meaningless if it only existed in the conceptual world and did not include application in the real world, but also that the opposite applied as well. He talked about hope as needing both the abstract (the idea that drives us forward) and the solid (the action that creates the actual change) to be fully formed.

Returning to Rebecca Solnit’s Guardian article cited above, I cannot find a better illustration of this interconnectedness between action and the abstract than the one she uses. She compares it to a fungal network where mushrooms, which seem to appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere, are actually the fruits of vast, underground mycological networks. The less visible, long-term work is going on behind the scenes, sowing the seeds of hope and change. Much of this is changing people’s attitudes and providing them with alternatives and ways of connecting with others who share their ideologies and dreams, and in my opinion, all art is a part of this mycological network. Not just behind the scenes educating, spreading the message and providing connection, but also springing forth as the beautiful, visible fruits of resistance’s labour. 

Our own current time of emergency demands the belief that things can change. Keep reading, keep watching, keep deviating, keep interested. Keep hold of those fleeting moments of possibility, elation, longing, and connection; remember them and build them into something bigger. Remember art is important. And keep hoping for that change.


Originally published in The Everyday Magazine.

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