No Man is an Island - The Satanic Verses
Ours are marvellous times. Times neither experienced before nor since. Times when our ideas and choices will shape the lives of countless generations to come.
This is an exhibition about Europe on the move. Where we as individuals and groups find ourselves constantly challenged about our humanitarian view and set of values, our faith in the legal system, and the freedom of the individual. The backdrop to this exhibition is a contemporary European setting and outlook: growing political populism, financial unrest, disenchantment with politicians, growing immigration, and an increase in parallel communities, Brexit and Panama papers, terror in France, Copenhagen, Brussels, Turkey, and raging climatic changes. It is an exhibition about the place of art, knowledge, and philosophical thought in a new Europe, a Europe threatened by fragmentation.
The Norwegian-Danish writer Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) is perhaps the single most influential person to have widely promulgated the idea of Europe in Scandinavia. Holberg believed that Europe was based on the following three historical precepts: Greek humanism, Roman law, and Christian free will. Humanism is about the faith in man and our common existence. The humanistic view of life stipulates respect as the norm for the right of the individual to develop within a framework of freedom and moral responsibility. The humanist insists on being independent of external authorities. Law is about having a legal system protecting the individual, and free will is about the degree of self-determination and influence we can assert on our lives, free of institutional thinking. Today we can add a third element: democracy, or representative govern-
ment. All four elements share a common purpose, namely how individuals and society are closely interlinked and mutually dependent. This is beautifully described in a text by the English poet John Donne from 1624 whose introductory lines are ‘No man is an island’. He continues, ‘Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main’.
When one part is missing, the fabric will collapse. Without free will, there can be no democracy, without protection of the individual, no humanism. For this reason, the framework underpinning our common values must always be open to question, never left to rest, but should be continuously prodded and explored to ensure that the fibres are sound and the fabric strong.
Literature and other kinds of art are sometimes able to open our eyes to the obvious that we may otherwise overlook. Some kinds of art have a special power to challenge our ideas and ourselves. Actually, art requires us to confront our own or society’s prejudice, norms, or taboos. The Indian novelist Salman Rushdie (b.1947) wrote in The Satanic Verses (1988), ‘A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep’. This was echoed a few years later by the Palestinian literary theorist Edward Said (1935-2003) in the famous ‘Reith lectures’ (1993) where he wrote of the responsibility of intellectuals. According to Said, the greatest responsibility of the intellectual is still to question status quo in all parts of society. The invitation is crystal clear: if you fail to do this, you will be failing your neighbour and miss the opportunity to making the world a better place. No one has shown more clearly the kind of evil that may be triggered once we stop questioning as Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). The German-Jewish philosopher, who shared the same fate of exile as Said, uncovered how the absence of questioning effectively nurtures the banality of evil.
Certain kinds of art can stimulate and empower individualists to think along collectivistic lines. Free-thinking people have therefore always posed the biggest threat to those who wish to control the thoughts and lives of others, be they political and/or religious. The Satanic Verses triggered a fatwa on Rushdie from the Iranian clerical rulers, a fatwa that is still in force today. In many ways, the book once again symbolises a struggle that must never be lost; the freedom to speak critically, which is at the core of the democratic idea as well as the foundation of all humanism, and the opportunity to live out our free will.
We should never believe that the struggles that have been won in the name of freedom and equality have been won once and for all. For one thing, because these rights do not include all those you meet in the course of a day. They must be won over and over again. Through dialogue, critique, disagreement, and the understanding of interpersonal relations, not through demanding, but through creating and ‘stop[ping] [the world] going to sleep’. This is precisely what is at stake and this is what this exhibition attempts to address.
Aarhus, September 2016
Erlend G. Høyersten
Director, ARoS Aarhus Art Museum