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The Guardian view on Little Amal: telling the unpalatable truth

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

This week, a 3.5-metre tall puppet called Little Amal landed at Folkestone. From there she is travelling to London, Coventry and finally Manchester. Since July she has taken an 8,000km journey through Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and France, following the route that a child migrant from Syria might. Her journey provides “an opportunity for people to be sympathetic and imagine what it would be like to be her”, David Lan, one of the project’s organisers, has said.

As a piece of theatre Little Amal is an extraordinary thing: incredibly simple, almost naive in conception, and yet utterly epic in execution. Hers (somehow it is impossible to say “its”) has been a tremendous, and deeply touching, journey – an intervention in the long and difficult debate about refugees that powerfully foregrounds simple human empathy rather than policy points or dry arguments. Along the way she has been greeted joyfully by crowds, sent letters by Belgian school pupils, blessed by the pope and, on Sunday, will celebrate her birthday at the V&A in London with local children and a great deal of cake. But there has been a darker side, too: she has also been pelted with stones, protested against, and denied access to a village of Greek monasteries. Little Amal, as a work of art, has been welcomed by audiences, and delighted them. She has also discomfited them, even repulsed them. In other words, as Lan has pointed out, her presence has allowed a kind of re-enactment of the attitudes displayed to real refugees.

At times the language used to boost art can omit an important reason for its presence in society: to hold a mirror up to its foibles, to see through its pomp and vanity. The arts are, institutionally, adept at invoking all kinds of arguments to support their continued existence and public support: these arguments, pragmatically adopted to serve a political mood, can sometimes err in the direction of suggesting that the “cultural sector” exists mainly to support “brand Britain” – to encourage tourism, to show the nation at its most “vibrant”, to enhance the economic fortunes of this or that town by producing such-and-such a spend for every taxpayer pound invested in its theatre or arts centre.

But art is fundamentally not about any of these instrumental things, nor is about providing joy or “celebrating creativity”. Art has better things to do, and the greatest artists often have said or done deeply unpopular things (“Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,” Joyce had Stephen Daedalus opine, which would not be the kind of sentiment that would delight the funders of today). Lucy Kirkwood’s new short play, Maryland, which runs at the Royal Court in London until the weekend before being made freely available to any theatre company that would like to run a reading of it, is a terrible thing to watch: a howl of pain and anger about violence against women, prompted by the murder of Sarah Everard. But it is art acting as society’s conscience: a job that’s important even (or especially) when what it has to say is deeply unpalatable.

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