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Moving Beyond Violence Seminar - Peter Biggs Spch.




Kia ora tatou:

I am re-reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I have read it many times before and, this time - more than any other - I am revelling in it. I am absolutely convinced now that Joyce was the greatest writer of the last century.

I’m also convinced that Stephen Dedalus is a very snotty and arrogant young man. However, he exposes us to, in the novel, a wonderful dialogue about art. I love his arrogance when he says: “Aristotle has not defined pity and terror. I have.”

He then goes on to define them: “Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”

Great stuff.

I love too his definition of art as being “the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end”.

To define art further, Joyce goes to Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas states that art has three elements: integritas (wholeness); consonantia (harmony); and claritas (radiance). If something doesn’t have these, then it is not art.

Now what on earth have James Joyce, Stephen Dedalus and Thomas Aquinas to do with moving this wonderful country in which we live beyond violence?

I think it is this. Just as art comprises those three things - wholeness, harmony and radiance - so the arts can bring wholeness, harmony and radiance to an individual, to a community and to a society.

I am not talking from theory here. I have seen with my own eyes the wonderful Arts in Prisons Programme run by Arts Access Aotearoa. I visited Paremoremo Prison just last year. Prisons are not nice places. They are institutional, inhuman and intimidating. We walked through long corridors sealed off with bars and metal doors.

And then we entered an amazing space. One lone, brave and wonderful woman and about 20 inmates. And in this cold, institutional place, they were creating art - painting, sculpture and carving. It was an extraordinary experience. I saw, and talked to, men whose lives had been full of destruction now focused on creation. Men whose lives had been filled with ugliness now creating beauty. Men who, in James K Baxter’s words, are “the children who have never grown” now talking with passion and confidence about their work and how it came to be. And men who felt that they had achieved nothing in their lives now standing proudly beside a completed art piece or object. In that room the arts were bringing forth in the wounded lives of these men wholeness, harmony and radiance.

I have stayed in touch with that prison and that programme. And I have experienced first-hand how the arts, by appealing to the better angels of our nature, can make gentle the life of the world.

This experience has convinced me that - not just in Paremoremo but in Manukau, Turangi, Wellington and Christchurch - the arts are a tool in bringing about a non-violent society in Aotearoa New Zealand.

And it is not just in New Zealand that this is going on. Between September 1995 and March 1997, Comedia, a leading independent research centre, undertook the first phase of a study into the social impact of arts programmes. This research was designed to look beyond the existing economic and aesthetic rationales for the arts to their role in social development and cohesion.

The research was undertaken in England, Scotland, Ireland, Helsinki and the United States of America. The study revealed these things:

- Participation in the arts offered an effective route for personal growth - leading to enhanced confidence, skill-building and educational development.

- The arts contribute to social cohesion by developing networks and understanding across social groups and generations, and through building local capacity for organisation and self-determination.

- The arts make people feel better, healthier and happier.

Here are some other things the survey found among adult participants:

- 91% made new friends through participating in the arts.

- 54% learnt about other people’s cultures.

- 84% became interested in something new.

- 40% felt more positive about where they live.

- Marginalised groups felt more proud.

- 63% became keen to help in local projects.

- 86% tried things they hadn’t done before.

- 49% said that taking part in the arts had changed their ideas.

- 81% said that being creative was important to them.

Let’s move from research to reality. A specific case of the arts helping a community move beyond violence is the Batley Carr Estate in England - known for its very poor housing conditions, increasing vandalism, open drug-dealing and reports of violence. An artist in residence programme and arts projects were introduced with dramatic results. There was a huge increase in the number of residents who felt safe from crime. And there was a dramatic fall in Council expenditure on repairing vandalism. Also, older residents who had often felt anxious or threatened by local young people said they felt entirely differently after working alongside them in arts activities.

More and more around the world the arts are being used as a tool to move communities and individuals beyond violence - in the prisons in the United Kingdom; in the prisons and institutions in California; in the prisons and outside the prisons in Australia.

All of these examples bear out the wisdom of that marvellous and visionary man, Michael Higgins, the former Irish Minister of Arts and Culture, who has constantly argued - and now proved - that the arts are the rock on which any successful economy and country should be built. Looking back and reflecting on the role that investment in the arts and creative industries played in the Irish recovery, he wrote:

“When I first attended the (European) Council of Culture Ministers in 1993, people were saying that when economic growth came back we could talk about cultural projects again. I said, that it is precisely when you have stagnation in the economy, when you can’t create jobs in the old way, when people are being attacked by racism - that is the time you should be investing in culture, because you are then investing in tolerance, you’re investing in diversity, you’re investing in creativity and imagination.”

To me, violence springs from anger, alienation, fear and frustration. And these have their dwelling place in the spirit of humankind. And it is to the spirit that the arts speak. It is the spirit and the heart that the arts move. It is the human spirit that the arts nourish. For the arts reveal to the human soul its own unique rhythm of beauty.

I truly believe that the call of every man and every woman is to be a creative hero. I believe too that this nation is called to be the most creative, civilised and noble country on this planet. Sadly, this call is not heeded by so many - through choice, through fear and through circumstances.

The great teacher and scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, describes the terrible consequences if we refuse, or are unable to answer, that call. And this inability to respond positively to the call of the creative hero lies behind, I think, so much of the brutality in our streets, suburbs and cities; the bashings and the bullying in our classrooms and playgrounds; and the petty tyranny in our office towers and our boardrooms. Joseph Campbell writes this:

“Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work or ¡¥culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless - even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from his Minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.”

I believe this call is issued to a country as well as the individual. We must answer the call to be a creative country, moving beyond the tired, traditional and out-worn slogans and solutions of more process, more laws, more policy and more institutions.

The key to solving the problem of violence in our society lies in the spiritual transformation of human beings. Only in this way can we transform their lives from a wasteland of low self-esteem, despair and violence to a life of wholeness, harmony and radiance.

And it is through the arts - because they speak to the human spirit and because of their transforming power - that we can achieve the dream of a country where people walk without fear, act with integrity and compassion and live creatively and without the threat of violence. I know this because I have seen it with my own eyes.

And it is my earnest hope that, through the arts and the rhythm of beauty that they bring, we can one day see those words of James K Baxter made real:

Alone we are born

And die alone;

Yet see the red-gold cirrus

Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road

Ride easy, stranger:

Surrender to the sky

Your heart of anger.

© Scoop Media

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