On Sunday morning, at a rally in Kingston which preceded a blitz for the “Art is Your Story” project, there were two middle-aged men who were angered by the rather small, extremely mild and good-natured demonstration held by the fountain. They were both inarticulate in their objections, complaining bitterly that they were “offended” by the gathering, and they both declined to engage in further debate (and certainly not with me, another middle-aged male) and so walked away in angry huffs after separately hurling their complaints at a female photographer whom they incorrectly assumed to be the organizer, perhaps because she was a few years older than the students who were still gathered there.
Now, the voices of those who spoke could only just be heard over the roar of the fountain, so it was clear that what these two men objected to was not a disturbance of the peace but of their own complacence. They wanted the gathering stopped not because it interfered with any other activity but because the sight of people gathered in a public square to collectively make a statement of concern which they did not share was inherently an affront to their comfort. Implicitly, what they want is a world in which they are not required to hear dissent, to accept differences or to scrutinize themselves. They vaguely invoked the threat of the police, which would be merely laughable were it not that it conveyed what is, at its base, a deeply fascist attitude towards society: the world must not merely BE but APPEAR to be wholesome; dissent must be silenced and conformity to the status quo---the pleasant bourgeois blandness of the usual antiques and vegetable stands, untainted by (as one man said, with furious disgust) “politics”---should be enforced by physical coercion if necessary.
Well, all this goes to show exactly why the arts are so necessary and why they are so distrusted by some of those in power. The arts pose questions and doubts to those who believe they have all the answers; and they force alternative perspectives upon those who feel they have seen it all. They represent a salutary dose of disorder in our society which, understandably craving stability and comfort, by setting these so high a priority that pursuing them becomes a vice, is wont to settle into a morbid rigidity. Our society would be no more than an ossified hierarchy of privilege and intolerance were it not for the shifting perspectives and hard questioning and downright turbulence represented by art. In Classical Athens, where democracy and drama came of age together, this point was understood—at least until those who were frightened by any public airing of doubt and dissent had their way, and democracy and drama were crushed simultaneously to be replaced by an intolerant bland oligarchy. Let’s not drift towards the same reckless failure of imagination. Let’s not be silenced by those who want no more than bland conformity.