Resetting the Human Compass: The Use and Value of the Arts
Talk by Sir Andrew Motion
"While the arts might often gain their authority to speak about life by coming at it from a surprising angle, they still belong in life. They are not, or rather should not be, a weird addition or a luxury or a privilege for the few…Essentially, I believed and I still believe that the value of the arts depends on a series of paradoxes…To elaborate a little, they make the familiar strange, they remind us of what we already know, they help us to ‘enjoy and endure’ in Samuel Johnson’s great phrase by challenging and shocking us as well as by more straightforwardly consoling us. And in the midst of all these things, they create what I think is the most important paradox of all. At the same time as they deepen our sense of ourselves, and thereby authorize, extend, confirm, and affirm us as individuals, they also allow us to see the world in eyes other than our own and to stand in other people’s shoes. In this respect, they encourage a fundamentally liberal and democratic instinct. It’s this, more than anything, that makes them a vital part of the existence that we all share.
…So there you have it. Three poems, and three reminders of what happens to us when we read them, reminders in fact of what happens to us all when we all read good poems and good novels, which is akin to what happens to us when we see something good at the theatre or the ballet or the movies, which is in turn the foundation of why we care for the arts in general, and not only about the arts, but about the many different kinds of institution and organization and activity that feed and embody the humanities…the libraries and research centers, the universities, the museums and archives. You will all have your own instances and examples. You will have your own examples and you will have your own way of expressing their value.
For my own part, let me say this: the arts, and the humanities associated with them, provide us with the paradoxes that we depend on for the realization and fulfillment of ourselves as human beings, nothing less. They stretch us, while reminding us of our shortcomings and our fallings short. They give us intense and durable pleasures, while at the same time testing and provoking us. They are the means by which we learn to live more deeply as individuals, but they are also the echo chambers in which we begin to understand what it means to live in history. They pay attention to events, but they make their own narrative of those events and sometimes establish themselves at an interesting distance in order to understand them more deeply. They teach us about ourselves, while they allow us to forget ourselves, and just as fulfillingly, to identify with others. They affirm the value of oblique truths as well as the usefulness of direct utterance. They honor familiar life, while transfiguring it, and they give us the clearest possible view of what lies beyond our powers of seeing and of saying. They help us to continue living well, because they keep death in view. Are these self-evident truths? I would say so. But this doesn’t mean we are excused from cherishing and broadcasting them. In fact, in times like these, we need to do so more urgently than ever. The true wealth of ourselves and of our society depends on it.”