No, I’m not sure what that means either. Carol Ann Duffy said it on the radio yesterday evening. Now, I have a great deal of respect for Ms Duffy, she and Andrew Motion before her have revitalised the meaningless position of Poet Laureate. She has also written poems around news events that still manage to be challenging and satisfying poems, a rare skill. Nevertheless, that particular statement is pure balderdash.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that she came out with this remark while publicising Poetry Live for Haiti, which takes place tomorrow. A very worthy cause, and 20-odd poets gathering in a form of Live Aid would be worth seeing. But it still raises the question: what is art for?
I keep coming up against this question, and every time I feel I’ve found a satisfactory answer it slips through my fingers again.
Does art help us to understand life? But in that case, how explain surrealism or abstract expressionism? Is art meant to comment on life? But doesn’t that put it on a par with journalism, and I can think of many artists who would deny that is what they are doing. Is art political? A lot of artists would deny it. Is art non-political? An equal number of artists would deny that also.
You see, I keep thinking, however worthy the cause, is Poetry Live for Haiti something poets are supposed to do? Doesn’t that make poetry rather mundane and contingent? But maybe poetry is supposed to be mundane and contingent. If I were a poet would I want to take part in such an event? It’s where the cool kids are, of course. It might help my career, as Live Aid undoubtedly did for some performers (though equally it seemed to kill off some careers, and affected most of them not one iota). It might make me feel I’m making a difference. But doesn’t poetry make a difference in a very different way? In the end, I suppose I’d probably take part because it can’t hurt; but is it art?
What do we expect of the artist? What do we expect to get from a work of art? What does the artist expect of their work?
Is there any one thing that art is supposed to be? And if there isn’t, why do we have it?