ART AND WORKING FOR PEACE
Lecture held at the International Peace Conference of the World Religions
of the Sant’Egidio Community, in Antwerp, Sept. 2014
by Johannes Wickert (translated by Kerstin Birke)
... I would like to look at my subject “art and working for peace” from quite another perspective:
In the 15th century the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Kues (Cusanus) created a character in literature which has been interpreted in the context of creativity and art until today. An artist is sitting at the riverside of the Moselle and is fully concentrated on carving a beautiful spoon out of a piece of wood. The artist is happy, filled with joy; his creative activity is like a prayer for him.
He asks himself whether such a beautiful spoon also exists in nature. “No”, he realizes, the Creator has simply forgotten it. But now it is luckily his, the artist’s task to complement God’s creation and to continue it.
He continues to ask – without any envy – whether there are similar spoons or even identical ones. “No”, he says to himself, because I as its creator, I am an individual and I differ from all the other spoon woodcarvers. Therefore, every spoon must be different. (In contrast to the denial of originality in art in totalitarian states, which only approve stereotype presentations.)
But why do I carve a spoon anyway? he is now asking himself. Do I want to sell it? No, I carve because I carve and I am searching for beauty in my work. My work has its value in itself.
To date, 550 years later, many artists have sat at “riversides”. They all had and have different objectives, use different media, different techniques. All in all they have been creating an enormous, world-surrounding piece of art over the past centuries, but what does that have to do with working for peace?
Now, three thoughts on the subject of “art and working for peace”:
- Conflicts, fear, pain, grief, stress, deceptions, hatred – a long list of such negative burdens often weigh heavily on human existence. However, there has always been ONE remedy to solve these problems: expression.
Whether it is music, literature, dancing, painting, drama, sculpturing, performance, photography, movie or installation: a cathartic force works in all types of artistic expressions!
It does not only create pieces of art, but it also purifies the human soul. This healing creative activity is not only reserved to great artists, it is possible for every person, also by merely contemplating or confronting with art. Therefore, I am convinced that it is the wrong way of education when nowadays artistic subjects are reduced or even cancelled for subjects which are economically useful, and children are no longer introduced to possibilities of artistic expression. Since art has a healing effect, artistic work is especially proven with handicapped people, elderly, the sick, and people living on the fringes of society.
Every time people paint, play music, sing, dance, etc. – in a mighty and joyful way, they contribute to the work for peace. Where such creative activity blossoms, there is no aggression.
Some days ago I read in Dostoyevsky’s “The House of the Dead” about his experiences as convicted man in a Siberian Gulag. Besides all the suffering which hundreds of prisoners had to go through every day, there was a bright spot. At Christmas, even down-and-out, those corrupt criminals could even arrange a theater performance on their own. Art, the poet discovered, transformed rough, aggressive figures into completely different, “better” human beings, at least for a short period of time. This experience has animated the poet through all of his later creative activity.
By the way: One of the great artists here in Antwerp (and a diplomat of peace, too!), Peter Paul Rubens, wrote in a letter concerning militant confrontations of his time: “I can only bear this world when I color it.”
- Shortly after World War II, a painter from the Eifel had the idea to gather artists from all former enemy neighboring countries (at that time, it was only possible to meet secretly). Deep friendships were built through mutual creativity and various exhibitions. In their paintings and sculptures you will find symbols of cruel war events, for which words were lacking. The intense language of fine arts was able to lead to a new understanding; the beginning of a process of dialogue between former enemies.
The European Association of Artists from the Eifel and Ardennes still exists today – work for peace…
- Do you know this quote of a Russian writer: “Kids, you play soldiers? Don’t you want to play peace instead of war?” “Oh yes – but how do we play peace?”
As I understand art, it makes you discover step-by-step HOW to PLAY peace. Because, as it was said, art is able to heal, art is able to start dialogues even among enemies – and art is also able to make the invisible visible (as the painter Paul Klee put it): Art is able to see beyond everyday reality, it opens our world (this means also yours) towards heaven. Through art, immanence and transcendence touch each other, thus bringing a way of being to the world allowing the works for peace.
My motto is “Everything has its heaven” – or as Joseph von Eichendorff said:
“Sleeps a song in things abounding”. And it is art that can awaken this song and make it sound.
For many years this has happened in the Community of Sant’Egidio following the same principle: On one hand they help practically, in a professional way, on the other hand this reality only becomes SOCIAL creativity by transcendence, a strong spirituality: People are offered friendship. And friendship has been esteemed as the highest form of relation among human beings since the days of Antiquity.
Both social creativity and work-creativity (according to Cusanus) are indispensable ways for creative work for peace! Because peace is not a state, but a way of living which people must WANT and for which we have to keep working in a creative way.
The different aspects of creative work for peace by ordinary people form a stable foundation. It should powerfully complement the indispensable prayer and political action. To implement that will remain our big task in the future, and every single one of us is responsible for peace in the world.
– Allow me a personal sentence at the end:
I am to sit down at the “riverside” next to Cusanus’ spooncarver, to pray, to seek and fulfill my creative tasks for today which shall have their value in themselves – if you like, there are still many seats to have…