Today, the editors of Medialens provide proof in Brilliant Fools, their presentation of the pattern of political control over two literary writers (Harold Pinter and John Le Carré). The contrast in the reception of their work and their opinions by elite media functionaries might help us perceive the pecularity of art. For instance, why is it able to say things that individuals cannot? How, in fact, does it say the otherwise unsayable?
It’s a question many artists do not hear. In an entertaining interview from 1999 with a Medialens editor, Pinter quotes the late Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa:
In this country [Britain] writers write to entertain, they raise questions of individual existence - you know the angst of the individual - but for a Nigerian writer in my position you can’t go into that... You cannot have art for art’s sake. This art must do something to transform the lives of a community, of a nation. And for that reason, literature has a different purpose altogether in that sort of society, completely different from here.There is regret in Pinter's quotation. Artists are not trying to transform this nation. Many readers express a frustration that art in this country is so limited politically and blame artists for the problem. Does it mean then, if other nations have a more effective art, the execution of Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government was the result of an artistic failure?
Was it a form of success? Look at the reception of Harold Pinter’s recent poetry. Everyone is perplexed, even the literary folk who share his political judgement (FWIW, I agree with the editor of Medialens' comment). It's poetry divested of poetry. Perhaps this divestment is the power of art? A divestment for politics' sake - or rather for the sake of truth. Of course this would also be its ultimate weakness. So what do we want?
Coincidentally, last week I saw on a BBC arts show a young woman (looking uncannily like a black Billie Piper) who shares Saro-Wiwa's surname. She was attending a private view with London's trustafarians wondering if the show's mysterious artist would turn up. It was an entertaining report and it raised questions, specifically of identity, even if it was only the identity of Banksy. The artist's physical anonymity was the hook of the report. Who is saying so much, why is he saying it, what is he saying? These were the implicit questions. I wondered then if identifying the man himself would divest the graffiti of its amusing, discomforting opacity, hence the odd imperative of the hook.