I was recently invited to come and say a wise word or two about the social relevance of Art and Culture at a theme meeting for people from the advertising profession. Soon after agreeing, I started to think about all those debates and discussions that have been held on the subject over the past year. Everything had been said already. Would I be able to add anything? So I decided to make my contribution a personal one: Why do I personally attach value to working in the cultural world?
And in answer to this question, I told the advertising guys about Joep. And about that morning five years ago, when Joep came to the Concertgebouw, along with around a thousand other mentally handicapped children. They had come by bus from all over Amsterdam, from the organisations and homes where they were looked after, to hear a special concert given by ‘my’ Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Joep was autistic. And he wasn’t well at all. His helpers were worried because they were losing Joep. He was retreating further and further inside himself and they could hardly make contact with him any more. His isolation was even becoming physically visible, as the boy was curling up on himself more and more. In the red plush seat in the main auditorium of the Concertgebouw, he also sat hunched up with his head down. The orchestra played fragments of music, and songs were sung, but Joep didn’t seem to be present. Joep was somewhere else. Then the grand finale started up with a spectacular piece of orchestral music. Lots of brass and loud percussion. The full string section. And suddenly, something happened to Joep. Joep woke up. His helpers couldn’t believe their eyes. Slowly, he sat up. His back straightened out. His eyes began to shine. He was there again. He was making contact with his surroundings again.
The pilot light that was still burning in Joep, so small and so vulnerable, had never gone out. It just needed a particular type of oxygen to fan the flame and make it burn brighter. And apparently that oxygen was classical music.
It may be a naive idea, but I believe there are many pilot lights burning in every human being. If you observe all those children at a matinee performance of Nutcracker & Mouseking, and see that after the first bars of music they already have the urge to move, to sway to the music and to imitate the dancing, you see that a pilot light has been fanned.
Art and culture, as I told the advertising guys, is oxygen for a whole array of positive pilot lights.
The pilot light of harmony, for example – something that flows together with something else gives a deep sensation of rightness. Together is better than alone.
Or the pilot light of beauty – that something can be beautiful besides being useful, and that what is beautiful is different for everybody. There is a pilot light called autonomy, or colour if you like – that it’s not necessary for everything to be the same. Or the pilot light of originality or creativity. The pilot light of emotion......all pilot lights for which contact with art and culture has the effect of oxygen.
And so they are fanned to moorland fires or even bigger, which give off warmth and energy. And which set positive forces in motion. Because the more people in our society are inspired by the realisation that together is better than alone, or that more colours are not frightening, the better and nicer our world can be. At least, that’s what I think. That’s what I believe. And this is what I tried to convey to the advertising guys.
So are artists better than other people, because they’re working for the common good? No. Artists are just people. Human shortcomings are everywhere. It may be the case that artists are more aware of the fact than your average person, but they are certainly not better people. And it’s not about art being important because of the artists, but rather about what they can bring about in others, and about the positive values to which they appeal.
Is art and culture the only ‘sector’ that fans such positive pilot lights? No, certainly not. Sport, for instance, is also a source of oxygen for all sorts of pilot lights. Those of perseverance, for example, or power or stamina, which are also very positive values. So let’s not suggest, I reassured the advertising guys, that art and culture are pre-eminent in the realm of moral justice. But one significant factor is that the pilot lights ignited by culture are maybe a little less close to the surface. We need to work harder to get near them. But if you do that, then something happens. Then you experience something. And that is fine and important work.
This is what I talked about at the theme meeting with the advertising guys. As well as some other things, like the economic significance of culture, and research that has shown that it helps children learn better. But apparently my listeners’ imaginations were fired most by the story of Joep. Incidentally, I don’t remember if the autistic boy was actually called Joep. And even though Joep’s story is a true one, I wouldn’t know whether his awakening was permanent or whether he relapsed. Although I don’t think that’s actually relevant to the story, I was happy that no advertisers asked me about it at the end. It would appear that my account had the same effect as a good commercial – so convincing that you forget to ask critical questions.lt; blog archive