“Sticks and stones will break my bones. But words will never harm me.” This somewhat irksome, Christian- derived children’s rhyme acts to persuade a victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, refrain from physical retaliation, and remain calm and good-natured. It aims to encourage us not to seek revenge on a non-violent attack, yet discounts the hopelessness of preventing offence that can be inflicted in ways that are not physically wounding.
The diktat, similar to many religious dogmas, is a commandment to obey as though its verity originates from a superior underpinning to one’s own experience of life, its affects and accumulative discovery. At the same time, the rhyme implicitly accepts and invokes the human and political right of freedom of expression, “recognised as any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used”.
While not suggesting we adhere to erroneous mandates like the ‘sticks and stones’ jingle, or indeed to those of any popular religion, by which we risk foregoing individual empowerment and choice, we could take two of its, maybe unintentional, affects into account: of the strength to take independent decision against destructive retribution of our aggressors, and of our freedom of expression. As the late Wolinski, of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, said (before his murder for creating belligerent cartoons of the prophet Mohammed), “The comedian (or artist) fights against the production of myths that seek to explain inexplicable mysteries”.
Verbal, written, drawn, painted, printed, performed or sculpted expression can have momentous effect, possessing the stark power to stir unpleasant, painful emotions in its witnesses. French author Marie Darrieussecq, upon the brutal murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, wrote of her upbringing in the presence of the publication which taught her “the right to make fun of everything with wit” and that she lived “in the insolent country of Voltaire”, who himself proclaimed,“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.
What is particular about dance as an art form is that it is physical from the outset. Dancing is the faculty to express and affect using the material body, in all its degrees of tone and quality, cutting right to the core of the human condition. No form is so directly such a poetic “concentration of life”, with product and process so inextricably entwined. Foucault lays bare that “dance’s difference and power lies in its non-reproducibility”. Bertram Müller, in an interview by John Ashford inscribed on the wall of Tanzhaus NRW in Dusseldorf, says “dance shows us quite directly… the complicated and often still callow ideas and conflicts of our time through a moving body…(and) can impart the substance of various cultural identities across borders, needing no translation”.
The power of performance in reflecting or potentially stirring political upheaval, deliberately or by subjective interpretation, was clear to me during the week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, when I was in Montpellier, France, performing a model-version of Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s work-in- progress 7 Pleasures (as pedagogy of her recent work 69 Positions): a piece performed naked, which attempted to problamatise the normativity of sexual practice as a symptom of our internalized mechanisms of control, proposing counter practices for producing pleasure.
To examine such notions, particularly in being naked, during reverberations of the attacks in Paris, generated an awareness, as performer, of a latent construal of the work as counter-Islamic– never the work’s motivation – due to the political moment in time, and certainly the place (country), of its performance.
Dance is explicit, owing to its realisation through the human body, yet simultaneously convoluted in its subjectivity, functioning very differently to cartoons, which strip their subject matter down to the bare essentials needed to convey the message. As American cartoonist Art Spiegelman explains, drawing cartoons “is like working with a 200 word language. One must deploy this language carefully in order to be understood. Cartoons lack the obvious spectrum of English language, but get into your brain before you have the chance to stop them”. There is no space to subjectively interpret the ‘meaning’ of a cartoon – it’s spoken to you as soon as seen, its message crystal clear. Such instantaneous and objective understanding (as opposed to dance), while this medium’s unique charisma and power, renders it evermore liable to fast opposition.
For Spiegelman, “Disaster is my muse”. When questioned in an interview on his oeuvre Maus (1991), “Don’t you think a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?”, Spiegelman responded, “No, I thought that Auschwitz was in bad taste.” Artists have always embodied political and social views in their work, manifesting and recreating evident realities. How, and why, could, and would we avoid dealing with disagreeable or contentious actualities in which we exist, in our work, when they are entrenched in all that we are, and all that we do?
Choreography and performance carry the potential to imagine new relationships and ways of being human. Material, ideas and sites, the elements of a work, are merely the sum of its parts. The ‘work’ (as noun and verb), is that unnamable effect it has on us, with potential to morally and ethically challenge. We register its influence by the way in which something is – whatever, wherever the thing – as denoted in the title of Lawrence Weschler’s book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.
As opposed to governance or military force, art has the power to become its own instrument, carrying a political or cultural cause with innovation, departing from recognisable origins into new, provocative territory. Great art transcends its matter into the experiential core of the occasion, therefore it is able to touch us deeper with its particular essence. Highlighted in the manifestations throughout France following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, emblazoned on posters and banners, was the message
“ARTISTES COURAGE, POLITIQUE CARNAGE” (“COURAGE ARTISTS, CARNAGE POLITICS”). We must embrace our ability to create powerful work, which fulfills the influence it may have on those who behold it, especially through times of political tension and menace. Tilda Swinton “believe(s) that all great art holds the power
to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. (She) believe(s) that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves”. Bertram Müller reiterates: “it is the most primary subject of dance art to research over and over again the intimate relation of space and time, of bodies, shape and dynamics and thus enables us to comprehend the rapidly changing multi-local and multi-temporal world in which we live with dignity”.
As long as we live simultaneously, life is a social, cultural and political process, and hence the work we do, and art we create, is borne in these conditions. Our work is not only inevitably affected by such circumstances, but is often a gesture toward, or in reaction to, and may carry specific, inflammatory attitudes. Nina Simone declared, “I’m a real rebel with a cause”, with the bulk of her music fuelled by the Civil Rights Movement in the States, propelled by her activist motivations.
“Art should not please. on the contrary, art has to show where it hurts in our societies, in our world. we urgently need the courage back to pick up this role of disturbers again”.
Art is fuelled by the moment, historically and personally, during which it is made, and it is crucial that we remain true to our power to generate stimulating work, despite the risk to affront. At the 2015 Australian Theatre Forum, Belgian festival director and curator Frie Leysen challenged Australian artists “to be bold, and to challenge an increasingly ossified status quo”. She said, “Art should not please. on the contrary, art has to show where it hurts in our societies, in our world. we urgently need the courage back to pick up this role of disturbers again”. London-based artists, writers and curators, Pil and Galia Kollectiv, reflecting on contemporary art’s current absence of claim to radical politics, write “…much current production is content with a fairly innocuous decorative function sprinkled with only the slightest of rationalisations, what Boris Groys terms “art’s conceptual bikini”. Spiegelman asserts the importance of inflammatory work in society: “I don’t argue that the cartoons (in Charlie Hebdo) aren’t toxic. I do argue that that toxin is a necessary part of an ecosystem”.
Nazi Germany, the GDR epoch, China under Mao’s reign, Stalinism or Kevin Rudd’s position on the ‘(Bill) Henson Affair’ in 2008 are just a few examples which illustrate art produced in societies to either serve a government’s purpose as propaganda, or be expurgated. In 2012, there was high demand to ban Israeli dance company Batsheva from performing at the Edinburgh festival, due to Israel’s political situation, a claim viewed by many as pure bigotry.
If art is a way of life, censorship represents life’s malfunctioning. We depend on expression, creation and discourse in order to co-exist through the constant motion of time’s passage. We do not just mutually exist within independent fractions of a shared world, but as part of the same universal sphere of time and space, which extends as far as our imaginations will allow. The outer construct of society, made up of borders, politics, governments, law, and religion must not overthrow the genuine keystones of our identities and collectivity, indivisible from who and how we are, what and how we make and create.
1 Marie Darrieussecq. “Charlie Lärde Mig Att Jag Levde I Voltaires Oförskämda Land.” Dagens Nyheter, January 9, 2015.
3 Voltaire. (Infamous quotation…)
4 Ashford, B. (n.d.). [Interview by J. Ashford]. “Why Dance?” Bertram Müller interviewed by John Ashford (2007)
5 Thomas, H. (2003). The body, dance, and cultural theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
6 Müller, op. cit.
7 Shaikh, A. (n.d.). [Interview by N. Shaikh]. “Comics Legend Art Spiegelman & Scholar Tariq Ramadan on Charlie Hebdo & the Power Dynamic of Satire.”
9 Swinton, T. (Director) . Rothko Chapel Visionary Award. Lecture conducted from Texas. Müller, op. cit.
10 Watts, R. (2015, January 28). Disturbing, not pleasing, should be art’s role. Retrieved February 16, 2015, ArtsHub Australia.
11 On Claims of Radicality in Contemporary Art. (n.d.). Retrieved February 16, 2015, from
FRIE LEYSEN’s full keynote speech EMBRACING THE ELUSIVE at the National Dance Forum http://www. australiantheatreforum.com.au/atf-2015/documentation/transcripts/
Marie Darrieussecq. “Charlie Lärde Mig Att Jag Levde I Voltaires Oförskämda Land.” Dagens Nyheter, January 9, 2015. (Translated by Heyward).
Ashford, B. (n.d.). [Interview by J. Ashford].”Why Dance?” Bertram Müller interviewed by John Ashford (2007)
Thomas, H. (2003). The body, dance, and cultural theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Swinton, T. (Director) . Rothko Chapel Visionary Award. Lecture conducted from , Texas.
Watts, R. (2015, January 28). Disturbing, not pleasing, should be art’s role. Retrieved February 16, 2015.
On Claims of Radicality in Contemporary Art. (n.d.). Retrieved February 16, 2015.