Jeanette Winterson on Art, Imagination & Crisis

jeanette_wintersonI have always loved the work of Jeanette Winterson.  From the moment Sexing the Cherry jabbed me in the brain to when Art & Lies knocked the wind out of me on a flight from Montreal to Belfast to the sublime sexiness of Written on the Body.

Art Objects was like a holy book to me for years.  I’ve loaned every copy that I’ve owned to friends. A quick look at the bookshelf tells me that I don’t have a copy right now and that I should get down to the bookstore right away and rectify the situation.

I’ve been woefully neglectful of Ms Winterson’s work in recent years but seeing this little video gave me a jolt.  The video was made by a fan to augment this audio clip.

Let’s start with a brief excerpt.  The full text of the piece is transcribed under the video below.

“We know that we cannot go on living as we do and yet we go on living as we do.

Books, paintings, music, theatre are there to prompt us to think differently and to see life differently and when we free up our imaginative life we are free to imagine a very different kind of world and that is what is needed and we’ve never needed it more urgently.

In a world economy that depends on separations art asks us to make connections…”

To see the video and read the transcription click the little red (more…) button below…


TRANSCRIBED TEXT:  People sometimes ask me if I think that art is a luxury, of course I don’t think that, but then they ask me to justify art sometimes, especially in the light of the recent atrocities in the world, terrorism and bombing. “What can I do about that?” they say, “Doesn’t this prove that art is really a luxury, a peacetime activity.”

I’ve been thinking about that, and I do have a response, and this is it. Again, it’s part of a larger piece, but it’s something that is worth thinking about, I believe.

We have to make a distinction between the acute crisis, of the terrorist attack, an acute crisis that needs medicine and emergency help, and the chronic crisis that lies underneath it. When the crisis is acute, the media rushes in, politicians gather, news programs and documentaries are everywhere, and it would seem absurd to talk about art in such circumstances. But when the acute crisis is past, and the people who have been hurt and wounded and shocked and disillusioned are looking for hope, are looking for vision, are looking past the platitudes of politicians, then art can speak. And it is to this chronic crisis, this underlying problem in our lives, that art can speak.

We urgently need to change the way that we manage our world, our corporate culture, our international relations, our treatment of the natural world and its eco-systems. We know we cannot go on living as we do, and yet we go on living as we do. Books, paintings, music, theatre, are there to prompt us to think differently, and to see life differently. And when we free up our imaginative life, we are free to imagine a very different kind of world, and that is what is needed, and we’ve never needed it more urgently.

In a world economy that depends on separations, art asks us to make connections. President Bush pretends that emissions in the U.S.A. have nothing to do with drought in Africa, that McDonalds’ hamburgers have nothing to do with deforestation, that a U.S citizen using 88 times more resources than a citizen in Bangladesh has nothing to do with environmental depletion and third world poverty.

So how can reading a poem or looking at a painting or going to the theatre possibly help us to see things differently, or do anything about the things that we see differently? Connection is not just about connecting the obvious. It is about connecting things that are not immediately obvious, and this is what art does. Some people make a mistake, and think that if art is going to be relevant it has to be directly political, that its subject matter is everything. That is to miss the point. It’s not a question of subject matter, it’s not a question of what art is about, but what art is, by its very nature what art is. A work of art — books, theatre, pictures, whatever — isn’t just about something, it is something, and the something that it is connects what has been separated.

Think of a work of art that has meant something to you. Now, let it rest in your mind for a moment. You will become aware that one of the things it did was to make a join, to bring things together, to allow your own mind to re-form in a different way. Sometimes we say, “I’ve never thought of it like that,” or “I never felt like that,” or “That made sense of my experience,” or “That made me laugh, that made me cry.” These emotions, these understandings, these realizations occur when what was split off is brought back together. Art’s business is to take all kinds of disparate elements and fuse them into new wholes. This is not an imposition; art is not colonialism. It is a revelation, a sense of things appearing as they are.

Don’t mistake me. I don’t believe in a static objective reality that is out there. I believe in shifting, changing patterns of energy; the shifting, changing patterns of energy that we’ve begun to apprehend in nature and in the very molecules and atoms and DNA of our bodies. Nothing is solid; nothing is fixed. But this movement, this energy, is not chaos. Science is just beginning to unravel the patterns and shifts and connections that seemed so impossible and implausible. But art intuitively understands these patterns and shifts and connections, because that is exactly how art functions too. And I believe that one of the reasons we go back and back to art, why we don’t give up on it, why people go on making it and wanting it, is because through art, we recognize life’s intrinsic quality, that everything is connected.

Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.

1 Comment

  • Reply January 19, 2010


    to live a life is an Art in its self,to look is the beginging of a work of Art ,to feel an emotion and express it is Art, to collect and arrange or rearrange words,colours,marks shapes, food,movements,plants,anything is to make Art ,and more than just a thought its an action ,yes a connection to life, to others,a comuniction.It helps the Artist and the Art lover to understand and engage with this life in a deeper and more rewarding way enriching life.

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