Last Friday evening, in the Liceu audience in Barcelona, I listened to a single cellist play a mournful melody from the opera about to be performed. A message on the safety curtain expressed solidarity with the victims of war in Ukraine and called for peace. The following day, at a performance of the community opera I’ve been working on, there was a similar moment of sympathy. I’d just been speaking with a Ukrainian musician who had found refuge in Barcelona with her children. It did not matter that neither our words nor the music were adequate for the occasion: what mattered was the acknowledgment of suffering.
Since 24 February 2022, this co-existence of the best and worst has been hard to avoid. Extreme violence has pushed itself to the forefront of the world’s attention, as it does from time to time. The unevenness of that attention has been rightly questioned: why war in Ukraine, and not in Yemen, Myanmar, Tigray or Somalia or in the many other current conflicts? There are reasons (some better than others) but the underlying question is how we can live decently in a world where such suffering is unavoidable.
That agonising problem has shaped my identity and work. It’s hard to remember who I was before I learned that war can sweep everything away, because it had done that to my father. Our family was defined by survival. Growing up, growing older, has meant living with successive understandings of the same truth—that everything good happens at the same time as everything bad. This glorious sky, this uplifting music, this loving intimacy—they all happen while someone, somewhere, is in agony. Worse, that agony is often the consequence of human choices, and not only in war but in everyday actions made in ignorance or incapacity: in a world with finite resources, the standard of living enjoyed by some is indissociable from the hardship suffered by others.
There’s a question I sometimes ask socially-engaged artists I work with: Would you rather work on an artistically exciting project with little social value for the participants or an artistically ordinary one that had transformative results for them? Most people say they want to achieve both, and they’re not wrong: in my experience artistic achievement is central to social change. But the question aims to encourage discussion about our intentions, and I know that mine has always been to do work that contributes to human capabilities and social justice. I do that through art because it’s what I can do, but if my goal could be better achieved another way, I’d change direction. I’m interested in art in its human context, not otherwise. Human beings are their own end; art can only be a means.
Art can seem trivial or even insensitive in the face of today’s horrors and tomorrow’s threats. There is an especially sharp dissonance now between the concerns of different people on social media, where casting calls mingle with humanitarian appeals (and cats, always). To speak of the war from a concert stage risks seeming like lip service, in the hope of avoiding accusations of, quite literally, fiddling while the world burns. The war overshadowed a recent training course I led in Romania, with some participants feeling that organising aid for refugees was more urgent than learning about community art. They were not wrong, and yet to oppose these things is, I think, mistaken. The conflict in Ukraine concerns ideas of freedom, tolerance and diversity (or to put it in more political terms, democracy, self-determination and the rule of law). Those ideas are expressed and enacted in culture and art: indeed it’s one of the functions of art to make such abstractions concrete, visible and resonant. Ukrainian artists—and some of their Russian peers—know this and act accordingly. Those of us in more peaceful places enjoy and benefit from the very way of life others are fighting for. They value what we have, and so should we.
So we must hold both things at once—the best and the worst of humanity—because only then can we change the balance between them, adding our weight and our work to what makes life worthwhile, even in the certain knowledge of death. Both are integral to human experience. The acknowledgment of suffering is vital because it permits the acknowledgment of all that we set against it: love, joy, beauty, the treasures of life that make it meaningful.
Art does not matter, except to people. And because people find meaning in it, art matters.
The photograph at the head of this page shows the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny, inaugurated in 1993 in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden in Berlin. The sculpture is Mother with her Dead Son (c.1937) by Käthe Kollwitz. Under the oculus, it is exposed to the snow, rain and cold of German winter, but also to the sunshine of the summer months.