This lack of art and this lack of humanity

I would like to thank the judges of the Heine Preis for allowing me to receive this honour
A.L. Kennedy

I would like to thank the judges of the Heine Preis for allowing me to receive this
honour, to be thought of as a good writer by people of intellectual rigour and good
judgment is always a kind surprise. To be thought of as in any way worthy of a prize
which also seeks to celebrate the promise of humanity and the role of writing within
the ongoing project which is human civilization is very moving. To be associated with
the spirit of Heine’s writing, his compassion, his imagination, his daring, his
mourning and his outrage – this is beyond what I would have hoped for myself, or my

So thank you all.
But, as you know, the arts today cannot simply be about maybe some happy
press releases and a congenial event where we congratulate each other on knowing
about values. We are all aware that the values which keep us all safe, promise us the
best possible opportunities to fulfil our humanity and to see and cherish what is
human in others – those values are currently being forgotten, derided, or quietly
buried alive.

As Germany clings to the lessons it learned about cultural toxicity long ago, I
speak to you as a citizen of the UK, a country where books do not have to be burned -
epidemic library closures and a massively compressed literary culture quietly prevent
books ever being read or even born. Mine is a country which would rather leave
traumatized and undefended children in the Calais mud, or now who knows where,
than offer them the welcome we once extended to the kinder transports and to
hundreds of thousands of refugees before and after World War II. This is a country
where the availability of the arts has narrowed shockingly in the last decades and
where community arts are especially under threat. This is a country – a wealthy
country – where around 130,000 of our own children are homeless. This is a country
which tortures in black sites abroad and police stations at home, which incarcerates
citizens without trial. This is a country with a wrecked education system for the
masses based on monetisation and testing and an emotionally traumatising and
entitling education for the elite. This is a country where there is less and less mass
media arts coverage. This is a country where the public discourse is a hell's broth of
gossip, malign invention, racism, rabble-rousing hatred and smut. This is a countrywhere civil servants despair, where politicians base decisions on faith and feeling
which does not include faith in our species or fellow feeling, where any attempt to
rise above the gutter is reframed as smugness, or otherworldly insanity. This is a
country where - as the UN recently pointed out, our government's treatment of the
disabled contravenes their human rights and where there is no need for an equivalent
of Aktion T4 to organise the extinction of human beings with disabilities. We have
simply withdrawn all their means of support, subjected them to official harassment
and mass-media demonisation and waited for them to die in their tens of thousands –
of stress, starvation, or else driven to suicide by their pain and despair. Make no
mistake; we have been lost for some time – long before Brexit advertised that fact to
the world. There is no morning when I could not wake up and say, like Max
Liebermann – who once illustrated an edition of Der Rabbi Von Bacherach – "Ich
kann gar nicht so viel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte."

And this lack of art and this lack of humanity - they are connected. You know
it, I know it, we have known it all along, but we have allowed the dominant discourse
to forget. But as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "Democracy cannot succeed unless
those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of
democracy, therefore, is education." The practice of arts, contact with the arts, is our
lifelong education – right here – it prepares us to choose wisely. It exercises our
imagination, the force that allows us to visualize any change, all consequences, to
empathize with each other. Without it, hope is a form of delusion. Art is at the heart
of democracy. If we doubt ourselves, if we feel we may simply be making ourselves
feel important because we are artists, then we can look to science, we can read about
situation pressure and its massive power – what is culture but situational pressure. We
can read about empathy, about compassion – how diminish it and how to enlarge it –
by doing what art does. We can study history, we can learn all over again the
beautiful and terrible truth of Heine’s words from the play Almansor, "Das war ein
Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende
Menschen." We can look at the work of Raphael Lemkin, the man who invented the
term Genocide before that crime had a name and who studied many culture's
progressions into genocide - and see that the Vorspiel is always the same - first the art
is murdered, then the people. Always. Always.

And speaking now for myself – I’m 51 years old and my life a writer has
failed. For something like 35 years I have produced work and I have loved the processof that and I have earned my living – I have been paid to dream aloud, there could be
no better life for me – and I have a nice home and I've won some prizes and I have –
from time to time – worked with writers in prisons, or community centres, or
hospitals, worked with new writers, with children, written in the media – and I have
learned from that, but I haven't talked enough about what I have learned. I have seen
art light up lives, because that is what art does. But I haven't done enough. I haven't
told enough people how precious that is, I haven't fought to make a space within
which that could be heard. Like many of us, perhaps, in comfortable, apparently
stable democracies I have forgotten that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and I
have mistaken lazy silence, cowardice, for truly loving tolerance. Love tells the whole
truth – when something is wrong there is no love in being silent and nodding as if it
were right. And I haven't said – at the start of every workshop – we will now make a
part of culture – the thing which tells us to be cruel or to be kind, alone or united,
ignorant and frightened, or endlessly learning and brave. And this matters – always –
so we will now break our hearts to be extraordinary because anything else, anything
imperfect, anything simply self-obsessed, weak and "conceptual" diminishes the place
of art amongst us, wastes perhaps the only chance that art will have to improve and
awaken and even save a life. This is life and death.

Whenever we see reality TV shows that diminish humanity, articles that lie in
a way fiction wouldn't dare to, words used to rob them of their sense, or cynical
website pieces that feed off outrage, while creating more, I haven't said often enough
– There cannot ever be a place for this amongst us. It is not elitist to want the best for
our fellow-man – it is insulting to stand by while other human beings are fed manure,
are shown, over and over, only how low humanity can go. It cannot be that only our
cars and electrical goods are aspirational. It must be that our dramas, or novels, songs,
photographs, paintings, cartoons, poems, ballets, operas and all the rest are
extraordinary, diverse, unexpected and things of life. If we have no money, then we
have no money - art can be cheap without being bad, toxic, hateful. This is a
necessary truth.

And I owe my career, my artisan's satisfaction and any morality I might lay
claim to as a person to art, to writing, to - for example - a single scene in a drama that
haunted me in my childhood and has ever since. In the drama a man who was not a
torturer, but who was weak, stood in a torture chamber and was handed a pair of
pliers – and there was the torture victim and there was the torturer and there were thepliers and there was the unspoken assurance that if the weak man did not torture he
would be tortured and there was the pause. And that drama, by German screenwriter
Lukas Heller who was born in Kiel in 1930 – asked me and still asks me – and what
would you do? How weak are you? How best can you control your weakness and
your desire for self-preservation – how do you prevent your fall and keep yourself and
others truly safe?

And the how is what art always tells us – amongst everything else that it
shows us and tells us. And it makes me think of lines from Heine's poem –
Allnächtlich im Traume – which is large enough to be about more than one kind of
love ...

Du sagst mir heimlich ein leises Wort,
Und gibst mir den Strauß von Zypressen.
Ich wache auf, und der Strauß ist fort,
Und das Wort hab ich vergessen.

As writers and artists we keep hold of the cypress that reminds us we all die
and that we should be merciful and we serve the dreams that come to us to be
expressed. We make them articulate and let them join the larger dreams that others
make for us, the dreams that form our culture. Our culture makes the reality we
inhabit. As artists, as writers, we are paid to dream awake and that is very nice for us.
As human beings, which is more important, we have a duty never to forget those
secret words we hear in darkness and to guard each other from the worst of who we
can be, the worst of worlds that we can make and to do better. And we can love that,
we can love that loudly. I would thank Heine and the Heine Preis for being part of
what I love.

Acceptance speech for the award of the Heinrich Heine Prize 2016


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