Art is a human right | Ivo van Hove

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads. Their step was first, the road new and the response they received – hatred. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead.” These are words spoken by Howard Roark, the uncompromising architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He mirrors Prometheus, who was the first to bring fire to the people and was terribly punished for it. A story that has become a myth that also appeals to the imagination after thousands of years.

Stories like this give us an identity as an individual, as an individual in a society and as a society. In order to understand our existence and give it meaning, we need them. Even mythical stories from ancient times can express our present self-image, our present identity. Who is the hated Prometheus of our time, who is the visionary? In our time, this seems to be not only the scientist who confronts us with hard facts about the consequences of our consumer behaviour, but also the artist.

Some time ago I was in Epidaurus, where the oldest theatre in the world is located. It’s an outdoor theatre where more than ten thousand people have attended theatre performances since the fourth century B.C. We played Elektra and Orestes by Euripides. For two hours, the audience of a thousand people was watching two plays that in my interpretation are about the violent radicalisation of young people. They recognised problems from the ancient Greek stories, that are happening all over the world today. An overwhelming feeling of togetherness arose. The performance mattered. Why is that? Because we as human beings need to belong somewhere. Myths give us characters in which we recognise ourselves, in which we recognise what is going on in our relationships, our families, our villages, our cities, our countries, our world. These stories are there for everyone. They provide insight into the great flows of life. They have the power of delayed reaction. They don’t reflect on current events, they’re not political. They mirror their urgency to an ever-changing reality. Stories are not objective facts, they can be interpreted in different ways. They can steer and change a society. A story offers a subjective, not an absolute, truth. The artist is a sounding board for mankind, society, humanity and we can shape our existence, our future over and over again. That is why there has always been art. That’s why we can’t do without art.

And art is also a Pandora’s box in which all evil and doom that can happen to people is stored. A box full of anger, fear, frustrations, forbidden desires. A box we prefer to keep closed. But if we don’t give negative, evil feelings a place – both in our little lives and in our societies – they rot, stink, fester and become pathogenic bacteria. At the end of the Oresteia of Aischylos, the goddess Athena not only establishes a democratic legal system to put an end to the continuing cycle of violence; she also gives the bloodthirsty Furies a place in the new Athenian democratic society. This is remarkable because the Furies are destroyers, driven by anger and revenge. Aischylos already realised thousands of years ago that pushing evil away from a society does not bring a solution. The artist as a necessary, positive and constructive terrorist of our thinking and feeling.

I’m going back to my time in Greece. A visit to Athens is unthinkable without walking on the Acropolis. The trip up starts with the Dionysos Theatre. On the way you pass a place where specific scientific research was done and from the top you can see the Agora, an open public space where people came together to discuss concrete themes that were important to society (we would now call it a parliament). And right next to it there is the Areopagus, an enormous rock on which justice took place. On top is the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the gods. It is striking that the city of Athens is built around this unique and visionary site. The Greeks were well aware that art together with politics, science, religion and justice gives society an identity. In the meantime, we are constantly questioning art’s right to exist and have pushed it out of the centre of society. A tragic and historical error.

How is it possible that we keep asking the question about the importance of art for our society? Why are artists always pushed into the defensive? The Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis concluded in 2019 that the cultural and creative sector contributes 25.5 billion or 3.7% to the gross national product, which represents the total monetary value of all products and services produced in the Netherlands. 3,7 % is twice as much as agriculture, slightly less than tourism. In addition, the cultural sector accounts for 320.000 jobs, i.e. 4,5 % of total employment in the Netherlands. Art is therefore vital, first and foremost for the health of our emotional and intellectual lives, but also for the economy. Just as necessary as politics, religion, justice or science. Benjamin Barber, influential political scientist and good friend, wrote: “The urban economy benefits from the arts because it is good for the economy when society flourishes and the community is strengthened, and when a public space is created. But neither artists nor politicians should be forced to make those instrumental arguments only when they stand up for culture.”

The problem with our current calculating welfare policy and our economically driven and consumption-oriented society is that it can do nothing with the creative energy of myths.
Art cannot be legitimised by economic arguments alone. It is not because it can be calculated that art matters. It matters because it is a basic human need. It is a human right.

Ivo van Hove is an award-winning Belgian theatre director and the director of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam. His productions have been performed at e.g. the Festival d’Avignon, Edinburgh International Festival, the Venice Biennale, the Holland Festival, Theater der Welt, the Wiener Festwochen, BAM, Broadway New York, The Barbican and West End London.