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Metaphor in peacebuilding?

April 1, 2015

International Alert is hosting what promises to be a fascinating encounter this evening on the role of arts in peacebuilding. It’s at the Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA.

Not a new question to be sure, as both peacemakers and peace breakers have long used the arts as instruments in their endeavours. Indeed, politicians of all stripes look to maximise the role of artists to push their message and ideology as propaganda. But the arts aren’t perhaps as prominent in the methods and approaches of peacebuilding organisations as one might expect. So peacebuilders are asking how they can do more with the arts and artists; and some artists are wondering how they can do more for peace.

One of the discussions about art and peacebuilding concerns the degree to which peacebuilders – as agents of change – do, can or even should instrumentalise the arts and artists in pursuit of non-violent co-existence. On the one hand, art represents a fundamentally intrinsic set of resonances and cultural tropes, and thus surely cannot be instrumentalised: it simply is. On the other, artefacts are inherently message-laden and subject to interpretation, and artists are people with talents and opportunity for communication, so why not ‘use’ them – if the artists are so minded – as a force for one’s version of what is good?….

But that debate may be a red herring, and anyway artists often don’t need to be bid. The Peter Paul Rubens exhibition currently on show at the Royal Academy in London reminded me that Rubens was a major Counter-Reformationist, and also a diplomat – while still finding the time to paint and sell religious, landscapes and portraits which neatly promulgated his religious and political views. My International Alert colleague Charlotte Onslow recently illustrated the role of the arts in peace and war with Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s terribly beautiful drawings of brutality and consequences in the Napoleonic wars: neither saw himself as the tool of others, each had a powerful humanist and political point to make, and the talent and opportunity to make it. Indeed, Goya seems to have trodden a very fine line indeed at times, between serving the Spanish elite with the pictures they would pay for, and questioning the very mores and political economy from which he derived his income and status.

I recently re-read Orwell’s short essay Why I Write, and read Denis Donoghue’s recent book Metaphor (Harvard University Press, 2014). Both gave me clues as to the importance of art in peacebuilding. Orwell first.

Orwell claimed he wrote – and more or less claimed all writers write – for four reasons: ego, to make sense of history, for aesthetic reasons, and for political purposes. In his view, no writer in his tumultuous era could avoid writing about Social Democracy and Fascism; and in his case, he added Imperialism, because he had experienced it at first hand (as a servant of empire who turned against it). So his art was fundamentally moulded by his political analysis and imbued with his political views. And that is surely the case for every artist, whether or not they know what their political views are in a conventional sense.

I was thoroughly – and rather idly –  enjoying Donoghue’s thoughtful book on metaphor – which draws on his decades of reading and scholarship, in pursuit of a better understanding of the role played by metaphors in literature and beyond, including in his own life – when I was brought up short by his statement that ‘all metaphor is prophecy’. What?…

What he meant, I think, is that by presenting an idea through metaphor – unless through a cliché – one is construing and communicating it in an original way for the first time. And thus, creating for the listener, reader or other consumer or participant of art, a brand new way of seeing the issue. This is because the act of metaphor is the act of placing something real (the ‘tenor’) in something else (the metaphorical ‘vehicle’) to which it is a priori not related. At the moment the metaphor is created – and crucially, this is not when the artists writes or paints it, but when the reader or viewer perceives it and takes it in – a new ‘thing’ is born – and lives on in the world view, debates, discussions, etc. of the reader/viewer and, by contamination through his or her own discourse with others, of those with whom she comes into contact. So the original meaning of ‘trope’ – a rhetorical figure, such as a metaphor – gives rise to its current meaning – a culturally shared way of understanding or perceiving things.

Thus, metaphor is indeed prophecy –and given the prominence of metaphor in art, this is, surely, part of the power of art for change.


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