Oscar Wilde said it was useless.  DH Lawrence said it was like having a good sneeze.  Margaret Atwood does it for the man in the sky.  What are they talking about?  Art and writing, of course.  But witty quips aside, why do people become obsessed with artistic endeavours like putting words on paper?  Hell, in this crazy day and age of prime ministers asking us to spy on our neighbours in the name of ‘being alert’, why should we do anything out of the ordinary?  Because it’s better to write twaddle, anything, said Kiwi novelist Katherine Mansfield, than nothing at all.

The great Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan said that he thought that a successful artist would have no trouble being a successful member of the Mafia.  Lately I’ve been trying to work out whether artists and terrorists have something in common.  You would hope that most artists don’t set out to create terror.  And surely the aim of most terrorists is not to bring beauty into the world.  But artists and terrorists do have one – albeit uncomfortable – commonality: they both want us to see things from new perspectives, think in ways that are foreign to us.  Of course, there’s a rather horrific romanticism to that statement, and I for one would rather live in a world where someone takes a good book into a public place than a bomb.  But sometimes a superbly-crafted sentence, like a bomb, can change us forever, whether we like it or not.

So why do artists religiously obey the alarm clock when it shakes them awake each day?  Is it because they think they can change the world by composing sounds on their computers?  Is it because life is inherently dull without making up stories, as if we should never really grow beyond being that six-year-old child?  Is it because there is glorious logic to the statement, ‘I don’t have a mohawk but I gave up full-time work to make ceramics?’  Possibly.  There is one writer I know who thinks she’d have more to offer if she spent the mornings just walking the dog up Black Mountain, absorbing herself in kangaroos, cockatoos and echidnas rather than sitting in her study, fingers looking for some words to work with.

The thing is most artists simply can’t stop making art.  They’re like drug addicts with no interest in being clean.  Which begs another comparison: like the terrorist and the artist, does the artist and the addict have something in common?  Both are looking for new realities, for adventures, great escapes.  If you take drugs, you take risks.  There is a sense of being more alive than ever when risks are in your veins.  Surely Brett Whitely would agree with that, though it’d be kind of handy to know what he would think about life in April 2012).

Why can’t artists stop?  What really drives them on, especially when the world around continues to turn itself inside out?

Thankfully, there is one major difference between the agendas of the artist, the terrorist and the drug addict.  In his book A Way of Being Free, the African novelist Ben Okri said, ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully… But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt… and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  Substitute painters or composers or sculptors in the above and it makes just as much sense.  Substitute terrorists or drug addicts and Okri’s point slips out the window like a daydream on the run.

Yes, Australia did have prime minister who, in his infinite wisdom, recommended to us, the people, ‘the mob’, that we be alert.  But shouldn’t we aim to be fully alive rather than merely alert?  Ants can be alert – the ever-present threat of being squashed by a big fat sneaker makes sure of that – but when was the last time one produced an extraordinary film?  We’re human beings and human beings are creative sorts.  Whether we want to be actually called ‘Artists’ or not, Okri is right: in our own simple, humble ways we should bear witness to the beauties and horrors of our times.  Record and communicate, make and tell.

So as the bombs keep dropping, no matter who’s dropping them and whoever’s land they are being dropped on, let’s not settle for merely being alert: let’s write poems, compose songs, paint pictures, build sculptures.  Because no matter how amateurish the end product, we’ll be alive.  And even if we’re living in a world dominated by a sad-sack coalition of the willing rather than the council of the wise, being properly alive is inherently a good thing.  That’s what art in the everyday sense can do: bring blood-pumping, naturally ecstatic, unadulterated life.  Alert people might be awake, but truly alive people are powerful.

It’s true that Oscar Wilde said all art was useless, but he was just writing twaddle – and changing the world.

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This is a slightly edited/updated version of a piece that was first published in The Canberra Times on 3 April 2003.  Not much has changed huh?

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