Children of Men: Teaching Us the Importance of Innovation
Preservation and Innovation are opposites.
There’s a famous saying by Pablo Picasso that goes, “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Picasso viewed art as a form of therapy; the craft lets people express themselves in a way most other mediums can’t. If you’ve had a relatively mundane week, art offers the opportunity break away from such remedial aspects of life and explore an imaginative realm of your choosing. Art opens people up to an arena of play that’s often reserved for children. Art is liberating. Art is self-empowering. Art is… experimental.
But, is all art the same? And no, I’m not talking about, “is a painting the same as a sculpture the same as an opera?” Rather, how different are the ways in which we enjoy the beauty of art? Is appreciating art as impactful as creating it? Can we live in a world where people stop producing art and, instead, are simply consumers of it?
This is the question lingering within Children of Men’s dystopian world. The film’s narrative illustrates the consequences of complacency. A central theme of its story revolves around the idea that one can’t shift their focus to the future if they are continuously wrapped up in their past. Many of the plot’s characters exemplify this trend: the oddball Jasper reverts to drug use, the main character, Theo, drowns himself in alcohol as a distraction from his infant son’s death, and Theo’s cousin surrounds himself with artworks from past centuries. Regret is the world’s driving force. People are just as afraid of living as they are of dying.
But who can blame them? Children of Men is a world where women have become infertile. Its characters are members of the last generation of humanity. What little hope exists is reserved for the present, and certainly not for a future that no one will be a part of. The fear of a foreseen end imposes a hindrance on creativity and gives people the excuse to be complacent. Is it worth doing anything if there is no one that will be there to see it, use it, enjoy it? The characters of Children of Men answer no, and I truly can’t think of a bleaker world than one where this is the case.
There’s more at play here than an intricate fear for a predetermined future. Allow me to pose this scenario to you: you’re out hiking with a friend, family member, significant other. A partner. The terrain is quite forested and rocky; the path you’ve picked runs adjacent to a range of mountains. As you and your partner continue along the meandering trail, and deeper into the range, you come across an opening through the brush- a deafening waterfall, shining in the sunlight. Picaresque. You’re captivated by the utter beauty of the scene and thus want to take some pictures. However, your partner, though they may offer to assist you, does not share this same feeling. Maybe they’ve seen 100 waterfalls in their lifetime, and maybe the one you’ve come across here pales in comparison to the others. Crass, they go so far as to question why you consider the waterfall to be beautiful. You’re lost for words, but not because you think the waterfall suddenly lacks beauty. Rather, someone is asking you to explain what makes something beautiful, and you do not possess a substantive answer for them.
Perhaps the most common response you might give them is, “I know it [beauty] when I see it”. I know it… when I see it… entirely subjective. You can’t explain it, no matter how much you want to. Such a question besieges the very concept of beauty. In Children of Men, this query is posed consistently.
Can beauty be taught? Perhaps it can, though not through traditional methods of education. I’d argue that the greatest teacher of beauty you have is, well, yourself. Children of Men illustrates this. Theo is a flawed lead; there’s nothing special about him outside the fact that his ex-wife is the leader of a shadowy “terrorist” organization, and she needs Theo to obtain transit papers for an innocent (and pregnant) private citizen. Apart from that, Theo is a wandering alcoholic without a solid job, a pessimistic outlook on life abated by his occasional drug use, and is constantly pestered by regret over the death of his adolescent son. Like so many people today, all around the globe, he has no reason to think there’s anything beautiful about the world that he lives in.
But then Theo meets Kee, the aforementioned private citizen who’s pregnant. His winding adventure with Kee, all in an effort to deliver the woman to a benevolent group known as The Human Project, opens the once disgruntled man up to a world that is genuinely dark, though not entirely devoid of beauty. Theo was once surrounded by preservationists; his cousin is one such example. Now, he’s surrounded by innovators; those who see a light at the end of the tunnel, who look forward instead of back, who aren’t allured by complacency. We never meet anyone in The Human Project, but it’s safe for one to argue that those looking for novel ways to solve humanity’s impending demise are, in their very nature, innovators.
There’s beauty in innovation. Children of Men takes an extreme approach in establishing this. Yet, there’s also beauty in preservation (such as protecting an original work by Picasso). This is not as present in the film; juxtaposing two extremes, complacent preservers and optimistic innovators, is a reliable way to hammer home a particular point. So, perhaps it’s not best to coin innovation and preservation as “opposites” and, instead, treat such acts as pathways in life. Are you an innovator, someone who’s experimental, forward-focused, and curious? Or, are you a preserver, someone who’s historical, a student of the past, and… curious?
There’s more shared between these paths than we might think. You can be curious of both the past and the future. Preservation can go a long way towards inspiring innovation. Society couldn’t survive without innovators just as it couldn’t survive without preservers. Children of Men depicts a world where the latter significantly outnumbers the former, which might explain why its world is ending in the first place. It’s not that these two mentalities are opposites. It’s not even that one of them is superior to the other. There’s beauty within each, a curiosity for knowledge that’s as admirable as it is imperative. So, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to amend the statement that ignited our conversation here.
It is not that Innovation and Preservation are opposites. Rather, they are different pathways in life, and though each path might at first appear separate, they ultimately come to depend upon one another.
That’s what this story teaches me.