A writer who, as a child, didn’t like vegetables much, remembered her mother saying, “Eat up your greens! Think of all the starving children in Africa.” “How does my eating sprouts help the children in Africa?” asked the young writer-to-be.
I was reminded of this as I read Jay Rayner’s restaurant review in the (London) Observer newspaper recently: “On the morning my train to Liverpool pulled out of London Euston, the media was full of images of other trains: crowded ones, filled with terrified people, fleeing for their lives, an invading Russian army at their backs. I, meanwhile, was going to lunch.” Rayner followed this with four paragraphs of justification for writing about brown crab rarebit while the suffering continued in Ukraine. He quoted counsellor and agony aunt Philippa Perry’s advice, tweeted in response to a question on this theme, “Stay in the present and not the hypothetical mythical future. Deal with what is, not what might be. Remember to enjoy yourself as much as possible. It doesn’t help anyone if you don’t enjoy yourself.”
Recently, artists on Instagram have also been questioning the point of making art during wartime. Why draw these apples on an antique plate while the bombs fall on Kyiv? Is painting frivolous, irrelevant, even disrespectful when families are huddled in basements, fearful of their lives?
The artist and teacher Nicholas Wilton explained his reasons for continuing to create during these troubled times in a recent blog post: “Making our art is all about making connections — it moves us towards a connection to ourselves and others. Non-artists are also connected to our cherished vision when they experience…our art. This shared experience of what we make helps create a more connected and, as a result, a safer, kinder world. Making art is a practice of showing the world what truly matters. And it makes a difference.”
One of the many supportive comments on Wilton’s blog post, from a woman who had trained as a physician before switching to painting, underlined this point: “embodying what we are for is more powerful than opposing what we are against….Art heals. Living from that place, there is no inclination towards violence, harm, neglect, disrespect. Only love and celebration…generosity and gratitude, and so much more.” A recent clip on Twitter showed a young woman in her Ukranian apartment, the windows blown out, playing Bach on her piano before she left the room for ever, becoming a refugee from the place she called home. It was important for her to play that final piece amongst the devastation, on the brink of her unknown future, dressed in a warm coat in the ruins of her former life.
Painting a picture, writing a poem, playing the piano – all help us make sense of the world we live in and perhaps go some way towards helping to create a better world, one where “love and celebration, generosity and gratitude” are more in evidence. If we don’t do these things, it won’t help the people under fire in Ukraine; doing them, however, might just be a small step forward into the light.