On the online portal about Sexual Respect, for students, faculty, and staff at Columbia University, New York City, Colm Toibin, has recently provided an arts opinion commentary to accompany an art exhibition on Sexual Respect held at the Faculty House this month. In so doing he has defined what art is; where it comes from; and what it achieves. Here is what he said.
The art we make arises from the most private and intimate concerns and struggles, but also from pressing matters which arise when our dream life merges or intersects with what is sharply public or even openly political. Art begins in whispers and tentative rhythms but it can branch out into many realms, including ones in which the voice becomes loud and the rhythm angry and the tone combative. Art begins in ambiguity but as it proceeds it can shed that ambiguity and aim towards the forceful, the clear, the disturbing. Just as art can insist on its own need for subtlety and quietness, it can also inhabit a space where artists can have an argument with themselves and with the world.
Art seeks out an autonomous space. Now, more than ever, we are in need of autonomous space. Thus the image made, the dance movements worked out, the film shot, the words written on the page, the photograph taken, the painting created, are metaphors for our right in the wider world to imagine and make, metaphors for our own will, for our own freedom, for our own vulnerability; they are signs too of our own autonomy, our own power. These rights, these signs, stand for not only what we want from the world and how we wish to be in the world, but also how we want to re-imagine the world and how we want the world to re-imagine itself.
Many years ago, two poets living in America – Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan – in the white heat of the Vietnam War began an argument about what artists should do about evil. Levertov took the view that we should in our work oppose evil; Duncan believed that we had a duty instead to imagine evil. In the work on show here, it is clear that this argument remains as powerful as ever and as unresolved. The questions of sexual respect, sexual responsibility, the removal of power and violence from the sexual equation, are not questions that any one of us can be easy or complacent about. What is notable in this work on display here is its commitment, its passion, its stark and unsparing exploration of these most difficult and important and urgent subjects.
Some of the work here is deeply and openly opposed to evil. Other work seeks to explore what evil looks like, throw dramatic light on what is dark and cruel so that we can see it all the more clearly, so that we cannot avert our eyes from it, so that we will recognize it in the future.
Art comes from our loneliness. Images and phrases come most sonorously to us from the shadow world, a world in which the thing that should have happened did not happen, the world in which the right action was avoided and something else occurred, the world in which many people failed and some did their worst. Art arises from suffering, from regret, from harm, from experience more than innocence.
But art comes too from our sheer need for utterance, our urge to cry out, our knowledge that the silence all around us hungers for our noise. Art comes from our knowledge that silence moves like a thief, or someone who wishes to exert power, do harm, cause grief. Silence moves in fear; it darts and flits. Silence knows that its enemies are words and images and songs. The most forceful enemy of silence is someone speaking the truth, someone alone in a room, someone writing cries and messages from the depths of the self, words or images that strive to matter and make a difference, concentrate our minds, re-create the world.
Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities
Columbia University Department of English and Comparative Literature