Writing in the weekend edition of the Financial Times of his forthcoming television series Civilisations, Simon Schama speaks of “art as redeemer from calamity” as the theme of a similar series made by Kenneth Clark five decades ago. Against the background of the events of 1968, art may have seemed to offer reassurance, stability, transcendence, but had it the power to redeem the world from calamity? Wonderful art may have emerged from calamitous times, but did that mean that the art had redeemed those times?
In the Russian writer Dostoevsky’s book The Idiot, one encounters the idea that things of beauty have a redemptive power, that reality can be changed;
Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!
Myshkin’s belief in the redemptive power of beauty and his concern with the reality of the Russia in which he lived threaten his relationships:
If I hear you talking about capital punishment, or the economical condition of Russia, or about Beauty redeeming the world, or anything of that sort, I’ll -well, of course I shall laugh and seem very pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don’t look me in the face again! I’m serious now, mind, this time I am really serious.” She certainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she looked quite different from what she usually was, and the prince could not help noticing the fact. She did not seem to be joking in the slightest degree.
Myshkin, The Idiot of the book’s title is naive in his understanding; the world is quite simply not the place he imagined it might be, but does that mean art does not have a redemptive power? Doesn’t the encounter with beauty change people for the better?
If there was much ugliness in the time of Kenneth Clark, there is much now, and an abundance of media to bring it before our eyes. Xenophobia marks international dealings; religious fundamentalism colours perceptions of others. Coarseness, arrogance, stridency and aggression have come to characterise political discourse. There is little beauty in the world, switch on the evening news and there will be little to suggest the world can be place of creativity and goodness. The problem in art in the last is that its redemptive power has lain in presenting past moments as not exclusively dark times; the need now is for art that brings light into the present times.