HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 1, 2015 – 12:00am
We have art in order not to die of the truth.— Friedrich Nietzsche
If you are an artist, you may have wondered often what the meaning or purpose of your life and craft are all about.
I still often wonder this, even if I have been an artist for almost all of my life.
When I look at engineers or architects, I can see tangible structures that validate their usefulness in the world. I see doctors and nurses healing people, and I know their work comes to good. I have the same view of plumbers, carpenters, chefs, bakers, street cleaners, garbage collectors and law-enforcement personnel.
They all work and deal with physically tangible things, and we see their effects on people’s lives. It can be empirically proven that they make life better for others.
But what about poets, musicians, painters, sculptors and other artists? What is it that we contribute? Do we make life better for people and society?
I always felt that being an artist was an urge, a compulsion to create. In the early years, I had no concerns about helping people or even thinking of my work in any larger context except pure self-expression. I merely wanted to sing and write songs, nothing more.
There was no great desire to change the world or anything of the sort.
It was during martial law when I suddenly had a change of paradigm. It was a time when the very reason for being an artist — that is, to express oneself — was threatened with illegal detention and the suspension of human rights. Something in me found this revolting. As a free spirit, I was being forced to limit the way I could express myself. Imagination and expression were fettered. It was like we were living in a no-fly zone.
To me, Imelda’s mantra of “the true, the good and the beautiful” was about limiting directions and horizons where artists can go. It was all pretty words to hide the suppression and repression that was martial law. We could only create pretty things that did not upset anyone or raise any important issues in society.
During that time, I also saw some of my great teachers, people who opened my mind, locked up in jail. I read about Pablo Picasso and other artists who stood up against the dictatorships in their own nations. Charlie Chaplin used his persona to make a film called The Great Dictator in which he ridiculed and railed against Adolf Hitler.
Those times of repression were a defining moment for me. I felt turmoil inside. It was a clash between being an artist and avoiding trouble or expressing feely what I wanted to say. I could not continue being oblivious to the society I lived in. I had to be honest and choose whether I was a free artist, or I was not. I chose to be a free one.
That was when I learned to pay attention not just to the style of music I created, but also to the content of my songs.
It was both scary and exhilarating to freely speak one’s mind against the dictatorship that was a threatening presence to everyone. But I had already awakened to the larger meaning of what expressing art was all about. There was no turning back.
To this day, when I find myself swimming against the tide as I express my opinions, I still feel scared. But an urge is an urge, and an itch must be scratched. An artist must express. It is a primal urge.
The world speaks to everyone. Others may not notice it, or simply opt to keep the dialogue to themselves. But an artist must, on some level, talk about his conversation with the universe. He must talk about what he finds meaningful in the world so that he may share this with others.
“When your mind is simply trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image,” wrote my idol, Joseph Campbell. A shared common experience for all of us at times: we miss out or fail to interpret the meaning of events and things. This is where visionaries, artists can come in with their insights on life and the world.
With artistic messaging and style, the truth out there becomes clear enough to understand. An artist can inspire and enlighten if he chooses to. When art moves people to action, it leads to something tangible.