Sunday, 23 February 2020

Beauty will prevail

“Today, our time requires lightness, humor, enchantment and poetry. It is no longer the struggle between good and evil, represented by Star Wars, but the utopia of a beautiful life. To discover the moment of beauty poetry gives us, the inspiration that reminds us that we are in this life not only to work, to fight, to bicker, but also to love, to smile, to dance, to hug, to dream. We live in a time where the most revolutionary thing is to be a poet.”

When I received the book Imaginação: Reinventar a Cultura (Imagination: Reinventing Culture), by Marta Porto, I abandoned what I was doing. I immersed myself in it and each word, each idea, brought to me the Marta I know and admire and the enormous pleasure, both intellectual and physical, brought by every encounter with her. Especially, the words that open this text and bring together her critical spirit, her intelligence and her profound humanism.

I read the book “instantly”, thirsty for it. I underlined words, entire passages, and came back to it on a number of occasions, looking for comfort and motivation. I now go back it in order to share it with others.

Divided into three acts, the first brings us some pills of inspiration, “About arts and artists”. The text “About art and frontier: letter with Amós Oz” was presented last year here in Lisbon, at the bookshop Tigre de Papel, on the occasion of the Festival da Palavra. She quotes the Russian Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Ilya Progogine, who, associating art/creativity with the irreversible phenomena that occur in nature said that “The universe around us is just one example of possible universes.” It is this variable that the arts bring to the real world, says Marta. “The idea that reality is one among many possibilities. And that differences nourish us, increase probabilities and possibilities in life and do not restrict them.” (p. 23).

Imagination and poetry, their power, are central elements in the way Marta thinks about culture and the world. On p.52, she proposes “a return to an Aristotelian ideal of 'poetics', the place where human imagination is valued as a power that may create worlds and realities different from those given by a given time-space.”

Living today a moment in history where the world seems to be going backwards, often feeling paralysed, numb, or otherwise perfectly conscious but unable to react, Marta draws inspiration from Italo Calvino, who in Six proposals for the next millennium says that “it has been poets and artists who remind humanity, at every time and era lived, that imagination, poetry and the arts are the main antidote against fear, violence and barbarism.” The impact of this idea returns, in a very concrete way, in the third act of the book, "Act".

In between, we have the second act, the most extensive, on “Politics, culture and social imaginary”. A reflection dedicated to the urgency to rethink, reinvent, democracy, also through the reinvention of cultural policies.  One reads on p. 42 that “It is the people, the artists, who make arts and culture, but it is politics that create the conditions for it to be democratic, to expand and make sense for the society as a whole."

Considering the intensified discussion generated in recent weeks in Portugal (on issues which are, nevertheless, permanent and persistent, such as the role of cultural policies (or their absence), power, fear, silence, subservience), Marta suggests, in a very relevant way also for us, that “culture, or rather, the policies that embody it, must prioritise the construction of a social imaginary of understanding, criticism and struggle to assert democratic ideas. To stimulate sensitive mentalities capable of structuring societies in which the respecting the rights is not an act of mercy, but a conscious act that responds to a democratic imperative.” (p. 36).

The reinvention of democracy inevitably involves the reinvention of policies that form cultures. It is also interesting to see here how Marta manages to summarise in four lines what it means to “form cultures”: “When examples are exceptions, we can speak of a lack of or need for education. When they are the majority, we speak of social culture, of an imaginary of how we manifest, perceive and act as a social body.” (p. 37)

But, after all, what can cultural policies do? The book presents us with three ideas (pp.44-47):

1. The need for the cultural ecosystem to “elaborate and develop actions that guarantee that the values which are ​​essential to cultural democracy continue to exist and override the need to create walls, to destroy cultures and entire forms of existence, abandoning them to indifference, misery and lack of opportunities.”
2. The need to recognise and understand the new learning codes that new technologies offer "to promote curiosity and openness to another kind of knowledge that is not available in the fast and superficial ways offered by social media." To promote experiments that can “stimulate cultural alterity”, “practice the experience of putting oneself into someone else’s shoes”.
3. The defense of artistic freedom and artists as the foundation of cultural management and policies. Because “A free world is built without fear of discomfort, inconvenience, sometimes the shock and horror, which works of art have always caused throughout history.”

“A good cultural policy is one that intertwines two fields of public life: the aesthetic and ethical development (values) of a society”, says Marta (p.93). She values ​​and reinforces the power of experience, stating that “Experience is a fact that becomes meaning, that inspires and makes us happy, shocks and moves us. (...) It is knowing that a museum is not important for an individual or a city just because it generates jobs or attracts tourists. (...) but because there, in that space, at that moment, one is offered to live the unexplainable, the emotion, the shock in the face of an aesthetic experience that makes one cry, or rejoice, or get irritated and angry… that puts one in front of the magic side of life, the one that comes closest to the reason of human existence... ” (p.97-98).

Thus, we come to act 3, “Act”. Marta asks at the outset: "What are the cultural values culture commit itself to building a democracy that goes beyond voting at the ballot box?" (p.102). This question is fundamental, considering the distrust and disrespect citizens have been expressing regarding the system created and their need to find a point of escape not through the real, but through what they consider “authentic”, even if barbaric, elementary, primary[1].

This first question is reinforced with another one: "Is imagination a value for educating and learning?" (p.103). Marta tells us of the need to “think socio-pedagogical networks in which cultural spaces - museums, libraries, points of culture - integrate these efforts to educate for life, valuing ethics, aesthetics, creativity and the power of imagination as pillars this refoundation of time, school experience and learning processes.” (p.104). And she presents us with four dimensions of learning where the arts and literature collaborate decisively: education in values; the place for creative experience; the mastery of complex cognitive skills; understanding the signs of the time that we live.

Before concluding, I go back in the book, on p.47, where Marta talks about the urgency of institutionalising the freedom of the arts as a pillar of political democracy and creating support programmes with a higher degree of risk, stating that “The spirit of the time that we were delegated to live forces us to get out of already known comfort formulas.”

How to interwine the political dimension of life, the arts and their modulations of experiences?

“Above all, by nurturing curators, managers, purposes and programmes of art and culture of energy, curiosity, risk and potency. Opening a path to liberate the arts and their public representations from all kinds of domestication that eliminates worries and anxieties and ends up playing the game already played.” (p. 109).

Marta brings me that mixture of restlessness and comfort that I need to stay alert, to continue to grow more and more aware of the world around me, to feed the hope and the desire to take a step in my lifetime on a journey that some started long ago and others will cherish in the future. We will be the best we can. 

[1] Read Radical Trust on this blog.

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