In a world of bad news, art can be the best medicine

Art is the illumination of the human desire to connect and create, irrespective of the period or genre

Wizkid performs at The O2 Arena in December 2021 in London. WireImage
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It’s not all bad news.

Yes, the situation in Ukraine is dangerous and depressing. In Yemen, it’s dire. There’s a cost-of-living crisis, and the prospect of unrest in countries where millions of people are living – quite literally – on the breadline. Rather than the "Roaring Twenties", the 2020s may see even more economic dislocation and further migration away from conflict zones and countries where global heating hits agriculture hardest.

But then, almost at random, I came across this inspiring tweet from an archaeologist, Alison Fisk, accompanied by a very beautiful photo: “An ancient amber bear. Carved about 10,000 years ago, this magical find washed up on a beach at Fano in Denmark from a submerged Mesolithic settlement under the North Sea. National Museum of Denmark.”

Looking at Ms Fisk’s picture of the elegant bear carving, we could be staring at a tiny modern sculpture from the late Henry Moore, and yet, for some reason, someone somewhere 10,000 years ago in the cold regions of northern Europe created this. The bear reminds us in the grim times of 2022 that humans have always needed art. What happened to the bear carver? Was he or she working by the light of a fire in a cave or rough wooden shack? Did the bear have religious significance in a pagan world? Was it just for decoration – or maybe simply to give the carver something to do in long summer’s evenings in northern Europe?

I saw the picture of the bear just a few hours after being at the O2 arena in London for another kind of artistic experience.

Young Voices is the largest school choir in the world. It has been growing for 25 years. The O2 – which holds 20,000 people – was packed, and there were professional performers, singers, dancers, musicians and beat boxers – but the stars of the show were the several thousand children in the choir. They sang their hearts out for two hours, tackling everything from Carmina Burana to the Beatles and selections from the Lion King, while stage performers added a bit of Vivaldi plus Lady Gaga.

For those magical two hours, it was as if all the conflict in Ukraine, the political mess in Westminster, questions about the cost of petrol and electricity and gas, were no longer relevant. Even better, the show's organisers scored a huge hit by thanking the teachers in the audience – especially the music teachers – for preparing their school choirs so well that they could quickly combine into a cultural force of about 6,000 young people having the time of their lives. I talked with some of those involved in the organisation afterwards and their pride in their work was obvious.

Equally obvious is the fact that – to steal the name of a popular TV show – Britain’s got talent. The young dancers, musicians and singers demonstrated that the true global genius of Britain as a cultural power is safe in the hands of our children. The creativity on show was obvious, and so was the enthusiasm. What a relief. Here was genuine talent showcased in London after months of vacuous Westminster political blather about "Global Britain" and the self-congratulation and boasting of Downing Street policy makers.

Sinn Fein's Vice President Michelle O'Neill, centre, celebrates with party colleagues after being elected in Mid Ulster at the Medow Bank election count centre in Magherafelt on Friday. AP Photo

Art can be an escape from reality, and the music at the O2 was certainly that. But art is also a reality in itself, a different reality, the illumination of the human desire to connect and create.

Astonishingly the Mesolithic bear carver connects with us 10,000 years later. The children in the choir connected with each other, with the audience, with popular culture, with classical music and with professional musicians. In fact, one of those professional musicians was inspired into her career by being part of Young Voices as a child 20 years ago.

In other news – I’m back at my desk today, planning on chairing a debate with MPs and commentators this week on whether the UK is destined to fall apart. The local government election, which has just taken place, shows that the Conservative Party, which forms the British government, controls no local councils anywhere in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, is now indisputably the largest party. Unionists – those who want to remain part of the UK – are in disarray. In Westminster, the government of Boris Johnson continues to be knee-deep in various kinds of dodgy dealings.

But the message of hope and inspiration from the children in the choir to the genius of the bear-carving artist remind us that these things will pass. Perhaps there is worse to come in Ukraine, with climate change or the economy. Perhaps things will, for a time, get better, as they usually do. Either way, art is a consolation, an inspiration and simply fun. Ask the children who sang their hearts out. Or imagine what was going through the mind of the bear carver. Or remember the famous Roman saying, "Ars Longa Vita Brevis", which roughly translates to "Art is long. Life is short".

It’s not all bad.

Published: May 10, 2022, 2:00 PM