The revolution in information and communication technology has given us 24 hour news, social networking and instant access to the world’s horrors. The darkness in Joseph Conrad’s story was not just evil, but evil hidden: reporting it meant a long, dangerous journey to face things that even then were barely understandable. Today, as children hide on a bare mountain from murderers, images of mass executions, shredded human beings and body parts are exchanged like trading cards, feeding self-righteousness, hatred and worse.
Access to the means of expression is only the start: what matters is what we choose to say. Something must be done, everyone agrees. But why believe we have the wisdom to know what and the power to act? Why should not the unforeseeable consequences of our great solutions be as terrible tomorrow as they were yesterday?
Artists, who have exceptional gifts of expression as well as means and attention, have particular responsibilities in these shouting matches. By the nature of their work, they stand for dialogue, thoughtfulness, empathy, care. There are far too many in the world raging against just such values, would-be Alexanders who reach for their weapons when faced with complexity. Pete Seeger spent his life trying to act with equal integrity as an artist and a man. Asked in 2011 whether he would join the artistic boycott of Israel, he said:
‘I understand why someone would want to boycott a place financially, but I don’t understand why you would boycott dialogue. The world will not be here in 50 years unless we learn how to communicate with each other nonviolently.’
As Europe marks the centenary of the first global war with the music, words and images of those who lived and died in the catastrophe, we need artists true to their vocation of dialogue.