The Need for Art

The Need for Art by Nupu Press

“The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” ― Anaïs Nin

During apartheid, the non-white prisoners in Number Four of the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg were forced to stay in overcrowded cells for 23 hours a day, with 60 inmates sharing one toilet. Disease was rife with bad food, lack of adequate bathing facilities and overcrowding. They were subject to brutal beatings, constant humiliation and inhumane treatment. On my tour I was shown what some of the prisoners, often in secret, made:

They created little animal sculptures out of paper and soap. They marked a blanket like a Ludo board and made dice from soap. They used blankets to create temporary installations before taking them back at night for their original use.

If I needed assurance that our desire to create art is a fundamental need, I found it in the Old Fort Prison.


In feng shui, the ancient Chinese study of harmonising our physical environment, the central right section of the bagua is for joy, creativity and children.

Grouping them together is not at all surprising. Creative types (including us childless ones) frequently use children metaphors for our own work – such as not being able to pick a favourite from one’s output, or releasing them into the world after we have nurtured them into being, or even referring to our projects as “babies”.

In The Prophet, that ever-faithful companion to college students the world over, poet and writer Kahlil Gibran said about children:

They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

I feel much the same about the process of creating any sort of artwork or writing. I am the portal. The best advice to remember whenever I’m stuck is to get out of my own way.

Show me the world

In our fast-moving world, art forces us to slow down when we observe, reflect and appraise. Art is how we develop appreciation for the life around us. Art helps us understand the human condition. Without cave paintings, poetry and rap songs, comprehension of our times would be poorer.

The 1937 depiction of the Spanish Civil War by Pablo Picasso in Guernica. The paintings of the 1943 Bengal famine by Zainul Abedin. The 1989 photograph by Jeff Widener of the protestor standing in front of the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Each was specific to its time and location, yet reflect the timeless universality of our horrors. So much so, that while living in occupied Paris during WWII Picasso was asked by a Nazi officer about Guernica, “Did you do this?” He replied, “No, you did.”

Earth without art is eh

Art is a form of messaging. We express ourselves. We tell our stories. We forge narratives to make sense of our lives.

By its very nature, creating art is something that we produce; and it may be the only footprint we leave behind. It tells others that we were here.

It is not about recreating life, as much as presenting our version of it. This version is ours. There is no right or wrong – art is interpretation. We tell our truth of what we know, as we know it.

Nature can provide flowers. Art is our offering to the gods.

“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.” — PG Wodehouse

Related Recommendations:

film iconA heartbroken musician (Keira Knightley), her successful ex-boyfriend (Adam Levine) and a music producer at the verge of a breakdown (Mark Ruffalo) come together in Begin Again. Written and directed by John Carney (who also made the wonderful Once), this is the finest cheer-me-up I’ve seen in ages. Love the soundtrack too.

podcast icon“For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community – connectors and openers, not untouchable stars.” For artists wondering how in this digital age we can create art and still make a living, watch musician Amanda Palmer’s moving TED talk, The Art of Asking.

music buttonConductor Daniel Barenboim (citizen of both Israel and Palestine) and the late Palestinian-born intellectual Edward Said jointly founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra 15 years ago, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians. Listen to them play Beethoven for All.

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