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  • Alastair Cavendish

The Sanity of Art

I have said a great many foolish things in my lifetime, and I have said a fair number of things that have been laughed at and dismissed as absurd. They have almost never been the same things. It is just as well, really, that one forgets most of the vapid, tedious things one says in order to sound clever, or fit in with a group, or fill silences. The howls of protest and ridicule that follow a genuinely original thought at least underline it in the mind as a matter of some importance.

One day, when I was, I suppose, about twelve or thirteen years old, I became involved in a conversation about football hooliganism. Lord alone knows why. I knew nothing about the subject, and neither, I suspect, did the other people talking about it. I had never even been to a professional football match. It is just possible that, strictly speaking, no one actively sought my opinion, but I was a generous child, and gave it freely despite this omission.

My plan to obliterate football hooliganism was to give every football supporter a reading list. I recall that it included Milton, Browning, Tennyson, Wilde and Yeats. They would then be examined on their reading before they were allowed into the stadium. The examination would place particular emphasis on declaiming several fine passages of poetry. After this, the football supporters would be civilised people, and would not want to fight each other any more.

There are some obvious objections to this, though I do not remember anyone making them. They might have referred to the Nazi war criminals who would sit down to concerts of Mozart and Wagner after a strenuous morning of genocide. The correlation between aesthetic sensibility and virtue is not straightforward: life is never quite that simple. Nonetheless, art itself (mainly popular art, it must be said) is responsible for quite a number of misconceptions about its own relation to sanity and decency. Hannibal Lecter does not exist in real life. There are plenty of psychopaths with above average intelligence, but none who are true aesthetes: they are all too self-absorbed. If highly intelligent and talented people are sometimes obnoxious and arrogant, it is generally because they have been spoiled when young, not as a direct result of their abilities. Most emphatically of all, artists and those who love art are not madmen struck by lightning, as Shakespeare depicts the poet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is finely-wrought Shakespearean sarcasm, for who was ever saner than Shakespeare himself?

I will restate an old thought experiment to make a new point. You are in a strange town late at night. Crossing a bridge, you see a group of four or five large, muscular young men coming towards you. Would you feel better or worse if you knew that these men had just come from a poetry reading, or a Bach recital, or a still-life class, or a play rehearsal? If you were to hear raised voices as the group moved towards you, might you not feel a certain relief on discovering that the topic under discussion was the Homeric Question, or the paintings of Bellini?

Art is not, of course, unique in this regard. The young men on the bridge might be talking about encounters with wild animals, the last time they saw a fox or a deer. They might be comparing notes on the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen, or discussing their favorite flowers. They could be talking about cricket, or ballroom dancing, or the golden horses of Akhal-Teke, or the Orient Express, or the Cresta Run. All these subjects suggest a love of beauty, a concern for form and grace, an innocence and self-forgetfulness, which are incompatible with malevolence or thuggishness.

George Bernard Shaw’s essay “The Sanity of Art” was written as a withering response to a long, mad German book by Max Nordau, who attacked a wide variety of artists and aesthetes as degenerates and apostles of degeneracy. It is perhaps unsurprising that Shaw’s polemic should be a defence, since this is the form in which any attempt to define sanity usually appears. The absence of obvious derangement is generally enough for us to assume sanity. However, this approach is of little use when the whole of society is deranged.

The most arrogant of artists admires others. Wagner believed in God, Mozart, and Beethoven. Admiration is evidence of sanity. Gratitude for beauty, the ability to forget the chattering of your squalid little ego in a cantata or a landscape, is one of the sanest things you can feel. Not long ago, the British government suggested that artists whom their policies have left without the means to practice their art should retrain to do something useful. This panders to a popular stereotype: that art is a frivolous luxury, while politics is a matter of hard-headed practicality.

This popular wisdom is the reverse of the truth. Politics is an expensive luxury, one which we could well do without if we were all sane. Sane people love freedom; mad people love power. If there were no mad people, desperate to coerce others into doing their bidding, the sane people who want to live their own lives without interference would be able to do so. Politics might be described as giving power to mad people in order to save ourselves from madder ones. This state of affairs requires continual vigilance, for freedom is always under attack. Slavery makes slaves of everyone: the slave-master is forever watching his back. Perhaps he even admits to himself that he deserves to feel the point of the knife, since his relations with his fellow human beings are those of coercion and hatred.

Why does anyone want power over others, particularly at the expense of his own freedom? It is sickness and madness, that is all. The artist persuades you to see the world as s/he sees it. The dictator forces you to pretend to see it his way. Art is freedom, politics, coercion. Art is sanity, politics, madness. The world will always need art, the sooner we can dispense with politics and politicians, the better for everyone.

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