I was thinking about art today and the use-value of creations – in the light of a visit to some relatives. They had been discussing the Just Stop Oil protestors causing traffic jams this week on the M25 and how they felt it was wrong. I heard their arguments and reflected on some previous protests that targeted famous artworks. I had heard both similar and contrasting opinions regarding those protests too, from people either angered that such ‘sacred’ objects had been defiled, or praising the protesters because they had targeted artworks so well-defended that their interventions were purely cosmetic.
I began thinking about my own work and what I thought its value might actually be… is it important that it survives me? Or that I personally leave a mark in the history books? No, it is not relevant at all.
I thought again of my experiences in Reite village (in Papua New Guinea) and how the villagers’s attitude to teaching and learning was so different to ours in Western industrialised and urban communities. They do not need a canon of knowledge because all knowing is in relationship to others, to place and to need. Porer Nombo (a well respected elder) told me that they do not worry about traditional knowledge being ‘lost’ because, if it was important to know then someone would always rediscover it. They do not worry that they might not know everything their ancestors knew – if it was worth knowing it would be remembered or would be relearned.
So I have been thinking that the value of being creative and bringing creations into the world is to continually remind us that such imagination and perception are possible. That it is not important to fetishise the individual artist or creator, or even the artwork or creation itself… but to remain aware that such creativity is possible. That it is always possible for someone to perceive or imagine reality in a fresh, new way for their time and place. This is, to me, the true value of creations – that they stand as examples, as demonstrations of what else is possible; as provocations to each and any one of us to step up and share our view. To continue to imagine and reimagine the world anew.
Among the countless billions of individual human lives that have existed how much art, poetry, craft and knowing has been ‘lost’ to time, to chance, to strange or tragic fate? Does it diminish our own capacity for creativity? No, it inspires us to imagine otherings – worlds, lives, experiences, understandings, perceptions and relationships. It drives us further to imagine beyond our own experience, context and situation.
I hope that my words, my projects, my artworks, films and publications have indeed offered some measure of that demonstration and provocation to others. But does it matter if anything survives, if my name and biography persist? No, for who in a generation or so would even remember – just as we habitually forget the vast multitude of those who came before us.
I am content to share what knowing I have attained with anyone who wants to learn from me. And if my works primarily act as signposts to me and what knowing I can share, then what does it matter if they also disappear with me? When I am gone then the relationship to knowing that I was a node within will shift around to accommodate my absence and remake itself accordingly. If it was possible for me to have any unique individual insights into the world then someone else is sure to rediscover them for themselves in some other time and place, just as someone else no doubt perceived them before me too, within their own context and situation.
That is not to diminish the value of my (or any other person’s) contribution to human life and existence, but to reiterate that whatever is possible for me is possible for someone else to achieve. Our collective (Western cultural) mistake is to focus on the ‘genius’ or the outputs of the individual and fail to realise that these are only signposts to what extraordinary possibilities await being imagined by others.