Alan Riding

For the past three years, this column has sought to make the case that art and life or, more broadly, culture and society are natural interlocutors: just as art can express life's emotions in a coherent form, culture can provide society with a spiritual dimension and an ethical framework.

Now, in this valedictory Entr'acte, the moment has come to test this premise. Can the arts actually improve the way peoples and nations understand and behave toward each other? Or does culture, in both its popular and sophisticated forms, represent little more than introspection, escapism and divertimento?

As for responsibility, can countries expect artists, writers and intellectuals to serve as a moral compass in times of public confusion? Or are modern democracies happy for social and political questions to be the exclusive preserve of elected officials?

My own sympathies are clear: I believe that society benefits when creative artists, notably writers, engage in the issues of the day. But equally culture and politics can make for toxic mix.

Historically, emperors, monarchs and popes demanded subservience of artists, but in the 20th century none understood the ideological power of culture more than Hitler and Stalin. Considering art to be too important to be left to artists, they controlled every form of cultural expression, suppressing or promoting it to suit their interests.

Other countries have been more subtle. For Americans, the very idea of a Ministry of Culture evokes totalitarianism, yet Franklin Roosevelt recruited artists into the Public Works of Art Project. Later, the CIA used culture to fight communism. And into the 1980s, the United States Information Agency dispatched American artists and writers on missions of cultural diplomacy.

For its part, and far more than Britain, France included culture in its mission to "civilize" its colonies. Then, from the post-imperial 1960s, successive French governments effectively took over culture at home, turning performing artists into its dependents through subsidies at the same time as using culture to contain American influence and polish the country's image abroad.

Today, no one is surprised when countries - China, India, Turkey and Mexico, to name just four - raise their political profiles by sending their art treasures to major capitals to act as cultural ambassadors.

Conversely, albeit again responding to politics, Western museums have taken to highlighting Islamic art as a way of building cultural bridges to the Muslim world.

But if culture has always risked being co-opted by politicians, it also illuminates politics. Who better than Shakespeare to explain the human obsession with power? How many war photographs say more than Picasso's "Guernica"? More important, thanks to a tradition of artistic and literary dissidence, culture can - and should - challenge power.

Long before …mile Zola "accused" the French Army in the Dreyfus affair, Voltaire and Victor Hugo were forced into exile. And in the 20th century, many more writers, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel to Carlos Fuentes and Wole Soyinka, assumed the risks of speaking out, in writing and in person.

What made these and other writers and artists stand out, though, was not necessarily their oeuvre, but the respect they enjoyed as independent voices, voices that were raised when most were silent or silenced. Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell, for instance, were admired for denouncing the Vietnam War even by people who had never read their books.

And today? Well, the times are a-changing.

What might be called Western "classical" culture has lost enormous ground to popular culture and its accompanying celebrity fever. Even that fixture of the Paris left Bank, the public intellectual, has almost disappeared. Harold Pinter still rages against the United States, GŁnter Grass still beats his drum, but few writers under the age of 60 seem to feel it their duty to lead public debate. As for contemporary art, well, the marketplace rules.

Who is left? With the entertainment industry largely apolitical, a handful of movie and rock stars, Sting, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Bono and Bob Geldof among them, have stepped forward to support worthy causes. What they say is rarely original, but their fame has at least drawn media attention to poverty, vanishing rainforests and disease.

But is the public-at-large heeding them?

I recently attended the Live Earth concert at Wembley Stadium in London, one of nine rock concerts across the world blessed by Al Gore to raise awareness of the perils of climate change. I came away persuaded that the crowds - and the performers - were there for the music, not because they were intent on "saving" the planet.

More the pity. Whether on Africa, global warming or, until recently, the Iraq war, the absence of an intelligent debate within civil society has become alarming. With newspaper readership falling as more and more young people turn to the Web for information, intellectual leadership is becoming ever harder to find.

In Europe, one exception is theater in London, where the National Theater and the smaller Tricycle Theater often stage plays that address political issues, from race relations in Britain to prison conditions at GuantŠnamo. Occasionally, movies - for instance Clooney's "Good night and Good Luck" - touch a nerve, but they too reach only a small audience.

So has Entr'acte been whistling in the dark? Certainly, culture's recent record of influencing politics and connecting with society has not been great. And that is our loss. The passage from "arts and society" to "arts and entertainment" has brought fame and fortune to some and little enlightenment to the rest of us.

Perhaps I should rebuild my case around another premise: society is too important to be left to politicians (or journalists, clerics and businessmen). There is ample room for artists, writers and thinkers to elevate the debate with some idealism. True, by now, they may need encouragement to join in. But why not? It has happened before.

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