THE ARTIST AND THESE TIMES… from a reporter’s perspective

“In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” This statement, credited to an American songwriter named Phil David Ochs (who died in 1976), resonates so well with the zeitgeist of today. Yes, these are ugly times!

There is indeed suffering in the land. And people? They moan and pray for deliverance from the current affliction. This is even as the effects of past horrors and misery are yet to dissipate! Meanwhile, apocalyptic warnings remain unheeded as more causes of grief are still being churned out by the second, spawning newer dark entities that circle this afflicted humanity, darken the earth’s ethereal atmosphere, and portend even greater anguish. Thus, the vicious circle of evil keeps finding ever more fresh nourishment and keeps perpetuating itself like an endless chain.

Therefore, does anyone need a special gift of foresight or clairvoyance to predict that these fluttering ethereal forms and the dark clouds of evil will eventually direct their ever-willing homogeneous human tools—wherever they may be found—to the most heinous execution of their dreadful contents?

Confounded, the artist stands amidst this raging chaos, trying to make sense of it all. Already, many in the contemporary Nigerian art scene and elsewhere have made a career out of railing against the excrescences of this modern-day Babylon. Of course, the artist must protest! He must protest because, according to the late American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”

But does the artist realise that he has a fundamental duty not only to rail against this depressing state of affairs but also to direct humanity’s gaze toward loftier goals? He has been assigned—or taken upon himself—the task of drawing inspiration from above and distilling it into relatable forms for his audience. Still, he—as the mediator of finer recognition—must first become acquainted with concepts that link him to these higher sources of inspiration by tuning himself to their frequency if he is to have the desired effect on the audience.

At this point, we may need to be reminded that inspiration is something that the artist receives, not something that is his own idea. This is notwithstanding the fact that his inner nature always leaves its imprint on whatever he receives. Of course, for inspiration to happen, the artist first has to initiate the process that leads to its reception. And that is by first sending out the idea. In a manner of speaking, he may be compared to a farmer, who sows a seed and steps back to allow the lawfulness of nature to have its effect on this seed. In the case of the artist, he sends out the idea, directs and focuses his energies towards the direction needed for its realisation, thus towards inspiration. By seriously seeking this inspiration, he opens himself up to receiving it! This is exactly as has been promised to mankind in the words: “Seek and you will find!”

Talking about seeking, what exactly is he seeking? Or, what indeed does he hope to achieve? We read in the 17th century English author, poet, and mathematician Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland about Alice, standing at a point where a road splits into two different directions and asking the ever-grinning Cheshire Cat, who was perched on a tree: “Cheshire Puss, where do I go from here?” “It depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the cat replies. “I don’t care where I get to, so long as I get somewhere,” Alice says. “Then, it doesn’t matter which way you take,” the cat tells her.

To further buttress this point, I’d also like to quote the late American writer Maya Angelou, who once said: “It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.”

So, the artist has to be clear about what he is seeking. And to achieve that clarity, he needs to adapt himself with the laws governing his existence. Besides, one does not seek what he does not even have the foggiest idea about. Remember the words attributed to Christ: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” You cannot desire the kingdom of heaven while engaging in base desires. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”

Indeed, to be able to discharge his responsibility of directing his audience’s gaze to a luminous goal, to beauty, so to speak, the artist must be constantly mindful of these two natural laws: the law of cause and effect and the law that decrees that things of like nature will always attract each other. 

All the while, he must continually remind himself that he does not exist in a vacuum and is thus governed by the lawfulness of his surroundings. For instance, he is subjected to the effects of a magnetic activity in creation, which decrees that all that is stronger attracts what is weak. He either attracts thoughts that are similar to his from all sides or his are attracted by a thought or other thoughts stronger than his. This attraction of similar thoughts ends up reinforcing the power of the original thoughts, thus refining and transforming them to maturity.

The artist, meanwhile, assumes that this inward process is entirely his own volition. But no one is ever free of outside influences or acts solely on his own volition!

This leads us to the nature of the artistic expressions assailing our consciousness. Based on the aforementioned creation’s laws, can beauty and peace possibly arise from the swarm of gory depictions and misshapen figures that are swarming the earth’s finer material environment in the name of art? The Newtonian third law of motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In the same vein, the Law of Cause and Effect, dubbed the “law of laws” by American essayist Ralph Waldo Emmerson, states explicitly that every cause has an effect, and every effect becomes the cause of something else. So, isn’t it logical to conclude that some artists could inadvertently be complicit in the current ills that beset humanity?

Understandably, many artists readily proclaim their works as faithful mirrors of their environmental realities. But they seem to overlook the fact that directing their energies towards these ugly realities only reinforces them. Thus, they contribute their quota towards worsening the conditions they have been railing against.

Of course, the artist has the right to express himself in whatever way he deems fit. That is literally his divinely-endowed right! Indeed, this right should also not be limited by prescriptive restrictions. This does not, however, change the fact that wrong choices inevitably attract unpleasant consequences and commensurate anguish. So, no artist can disregard the lawfulness that governs his existence as a human being and his natural habitat with impunity. To develop himself and gain access to those heights from which he can consciously draw higher inspiration, he needs to recognise and fulfil that Supreme Will, to Which everything owes its existence. 

Through his skill and ability to draw inspiration from higher sources, the artist has been equipped to fulfil his calling in this creation. Let’s be reminded about the basic law in biology stipulates that everything in creation has a structure that is meant to aid its function. Thus, no one is given a duty without being provided with a structure to carry out that duty. In the case of the artist, he has been given the gift, which in this case is the structure, to fulfil a social purpose. And this duty is to fan the flames of enthusiasm for what is good, noble, and sublime, rather than to spread toxicity.

So, the question that every artist needs to answer for himself is: Is he helping to promote crime or is he helping to further peace through his works? Indeed, by their works, you shall know them. 

Even in rare cases where artists receive inspiration from pure sources, they have been known to compromise when it comes to transmitting their final form to the audience. As receivers of sublime messages, they have not always been faithful in their transmissions! How dreadful it is to add one’s own ideas or even subtract something from what one has been asked to deliver to an audience! Indeed, the receiver must protect this inspiration from even himself. Sometimes, it could be to ensure that whatever he received as inspiration is not curtailed to pander to some established whim.

Meanwhile, the contemporary art scene is a free territory of some sort, where every artist churns out every imaginable and unimaginable form of expression unrestrained. These expressions are sometimes reminders of our true inner lives and realities. It is, perhaps, an unknown fact to many that in the subtler realms of our material world, every expression of our inner lives—be it the thoughts that we send out or the kinds of intuitive volition that we indulge in—is embodied and expressed in a form that is identical to its essential meaning. So, even the hideous forms of many artworks may be true reflections of what the artist senses around him.

But this applies only where the artist’s intellect has not interfered with the creative process. Besides, many of the artworks—especially the less figurative and more conceptual ones—leave a lot more to conjecture or are products of an artist’s experimental groping in the dark.

To conclude, artists need to be reminded that they, like all creatures, are subject to the same laws and must not be complicit in further reinforcing the ugly trends of these times. They should be guided by the time-honoured Socratic dictum, which says that the secret of change lies in focusing all one’s energy on building the new rather than on fighting the old.

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