Anger is an energy they say. If it were, in the truest sense, it would be really useful. We could run out smartphones off it, drive into town for free on pure ire, and speed through 5am power walks, even when it’s dark, anger shooting out our eyes and lighting up the road.
In reality, it is less manageable. It burns and shocks, like a cable, loosed and spitting like a snake. It eats away at us til we are crumbs. It robs us of our rest and saturates til we can wring ourselves out no longer.
Anger, we know, is fear dressed up. It is powerlessness, looking to take action and, it hopes, control. At this moment, in this world, not a one of us is immune. We are scared and filled with rage at injustice over which we feel we have no say. We daily raise our voices, post our terror, place our bodies on the streets.
But it is not enough. Two reasons. One: right now, the powers that be are doing their best to shut us out. Which leads to Two: our voices diminish with wear, our raised fists tire, it is too much.
It is now, at this moment, that art becomes vital.
For respite: we need beauty to lift us when the world is ugly. We need challenging pieces to stimulate those parts of us grown inert from effort.
As a motivator: inspiration comes in many ways. A TV show can spark an idea. A great story can help us to momentarily suspend our pain or revisit it in deep, healing catharsis.
As a unifier: Art can be shared. It’s a flag we wave above our heads. An expression not just of what we think, but who we are. We can all talk about it. Banners at marches, street art, sculpture, plays, songs show we’re not alone. There’s strength in numbers. You are not alone.
To entertain: we need a laugh. Christ, do we. Laughter breaks down complex ideas, dismantles fears, makes them more manageable. Helps us to cope. Or just gives us a break.
Much of my work has been borne out of rage. It comes out funny, but don’t let that fool you. I get to purge something gnawing at me and the authenticity gives the piece a punch it wouldn’t have had, had it just been an academic exercise. Take Racist B&B for instance. That was about my family. I can’t express how powerless I felt when my husband got racist abuse in a place where I feel safest. I mean it, I can’t express it. I mean, it might be possible through a kind of interpretive dance involving a lot of glass-smashing with a baseball bat, but otherwise, it is too much. I’m overwhelmed even now. “How dare they?”, doesn’t cut it. “Why don’t we have hate crime legislation in this country, to back up people when they say they don’t know if a verbal threat will escalate?” Much too academic, dry, and cold.
Instead of punching walls (and definitely not people - even racist people - only Nazis, actual Nazis who advocate for genocide are fair game for that) I made a sketch. It is a metaphor with punchlines. I took the rage and not only put it in the work, but made it the work itself. The expression might be of something dark, it doesn’t need to be dark itself. I’ve made similar work when friends have been bullied – personally or more generally – by organisations with deep pockets. I found a way to contribute to the Marriage Equality campaign by getting mad and then getting friends together to make videos.
I wrote two books, ostensibly about anger itself: one about overcoming rage as Irish women regularly have to do, the other about the ways in which we, as a nation, collectively express it. Both books were about frustration in their way. But they are at a remove. I am outside, commenting. Although the anger must be real and close to home, I do find it harder to make angry art about myself. For me, it is that bit too personal, in a way that offers little perspective. It can seem clear, but in actuality be blurred.
I love to write. I love to act. I can revisit certain suffering to fuel the work, but I am too close to my own story to give it the extra spin that makes it art. I can retell it. I can recast it and twist it to fictitious analysis (with a good dose of insight and very thorough, lived, research) but it is more a kind of documentary narrative. Perhaps I don’t allow myself the anger I feel on behalf of others. Perhaps I don’t see my problems as as artistically valuable as theirs.
It is interesting that so many artists have recently said they’ve found their work stunted by world events. They cannot write or make. They do not feel able to sing or move. Even the best and most prolific practitioners of expression feel too overcome to work. The anger has boiled over. Instead of fuelling something, it is paralysing. But that will pass. When you can’t work, I must, and vice versa. The show must go on.
And I forgot: the artistic is political; the political is personal. Of course. We know this. It’s become a kind of catchphrase. Yet it is no longer a slogan that can be said to be abstract or glib. Now that we see how personal, how real all of this is, it’s a little more 3D. It touches us. Goes beneath our skin. As global and local forces try to discourage protest or ignore it, our voices will come out in different ways. Out of spite if nothing else. To show we can’t be beaten now we are together. Now, as at so many other critical points in history, art will not simply reflect the times, it will shape them. The show must go on. The show will go on. We will.