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Sunday, 8 July 2007


"Vision" must be one of the most overworked words in the context of literary or artistic reviews and discussions. Every publisher's blurb, it seems, talks of "the author's vision". Art critics are no less fond of the epithet than their literary counterparts. So what, in these contexts, does the word mean? Very often, the author's or the artist's "vision" amounts to no more than his or her personal "take" on a particular subject. Sometimes it is doom-laden, as in: "The author's vision of the final days of global warming...", such a vision being something conjured from the depth of the imagination. It used to mean more. A "visionary" artist was one such as Samuel Palmer or William Blake. The word visionary was an accolade that marked him out, exalted him above his more mundane and realistic peers. As always, there would have been disagreement about which artists qualified for the honour, but about the nature of the honour itself there would have been more or less total concord. At that time it would most likely have been a supernatural vision - or an hallucination, depending upon your particular take on the subject. So, am I saying that to be visionary a work must record an actual visionary experience? Or can an artist or an author construct a vision from his or her imagination? It surely must involve more than a slickness with imagery, more than the twisting of a shape on canvas or a clever way with rhyme or assonance. Traditionally, the first essential would have been that it should possess a heightening effect to lift it out of the ordinary, one that was more than special effects or a device to achieve a coherent composition. And where the word "vision" retains its former meaning, that must still apply. In other words, it must compel with its authenticity; we must be convinced by a genuine spiritual quality, be able to see in it the signature of an active other world or life peeping into ours and having some effect upon it.

But away from its historical aspect, maybe there is another, equally worthy, equally valid: the artist or the author may have a "vision" in which s/he sees - and helps us to see - the world, or some small part of it - in a wholly new way. Van Gogh's "take" on the world has done so for many. We could argue endlessly as to whether his vision involves the penetration of another world into ours. For me it does not, but no one now sees sunflowers in quite the way they were seen before he painted them. Or consider the distortions of an El Greco painting, even those of the disciples in Leonardo's "Last Supper". Expressions of tension and spiritual struggle. The difference between the heightening effect of these on the one hand and van Gogh's on the other is not easy to convey, but is clear enough when the comparison is made. Looking at either of the former two we instinctively feel that the artist has reached us through something seen at the heart of each of us, an image of the eternal, some would say; a small particle of being that does not change whatever may be changing in the world around. Shelley, confirmed atheist that he was, had a sense of the spiritual and a drive towards self-knowledge that came together in his poetry, creating visions to open up that world for his readers, while for Wallace Stevens poetry could change the world by re-ordering what is there, re-creating the given. Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" can not give me that, however much I may glean from them.

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