Only for tails read hearts. Very familiar in the world of art - or art myth - is the person who knows what he likes, of whom it is often said that, what he really means is he likes what he knows. And why not? How is anyone to like what they don't know? Which begs the point of the remark being made of him, which is that he is too set and does not try to go beyond what he knows to other riches that art, literature, whatever, might have to offer him.
Art, music, poetry all sing when the intellect understands what it is it is looking at or listening to and when at the same time the heart embraces it and feels its way into it. When' in fact, the critical faculties and the emotions respond together. But there is no need to wait for that glorious occasion, no need to be limited to it. It is possible to admire a work of art, for example, without being able to love it, without being able to embrace it, as I have put it, with the feelings. At this moment in time the public is being asked to raise - or at the very least, to approve the raising of, a large sum of money (£50 million each) to save at least part of a valuable art collection from being sold abroad. The pride of the collection are two of Titian's finest: Diane and Actaeon and Diane and Collisto. (The image shows his painting The Holy Family and Palm Tree another from the collection .) I admire the work of Titian greatly: I can appreciate a whole spectrum of aesthetic qualities, I acknowledge that he was a great master in his field, but the works do not sing for me. That is a fault in me. Whatever it is that a Titian painting resonates with in other people is missing from me. Yet I shall be mortally disappointed if they are lost to the nation. Milton's Paradise Lost I would put in the same category, along with much (but not all) of Browning. Certain works do it for me, others do not. But judgement - hopefully - need not be affected.
On the other hand it is equally possible to love without qualification a work and yet not be able to fully comprehend it with the intellect.The first time I read W.S. Graham's The White Threshold, I think it is true to say that my intellect made nothing of it at all, yet it lept from the page telling me that whatever it was, it was not nothing. The heart saw something in it, feelings were aroused and responded to it. (I wouldn't want you to run away with the idea that all Graham's work is like this: there are more beautiful poems and there are certainly many less difficult ones - most of them in fact. My illustration is limited to this one example.) Indeed, the whole of this poem is not like this. These are the first two verses of a first section of six verses, half a page of a poem of perhaps seven pages, five sections in all:
Let me always from the deep heart
Drowned under behind my brow so ever
Stormed with other wandering, speak
Up famous fathoms well over strongly
The pacing whitehaired kingdoms of the sea.
I walk towards you and you may not walk away.
Always the welcome-roaring threshold
So ever bell worth my exile to
Speak up to greet me into the hailing
Seabraes seabent with swimming crowds
All cast all mighty water dead away.
I rise up loving and you may not move away.
Graham can leave you mentally wallowing in his wake, while you are at the same time being dazzled by the something you cannot catch up with. The trick, I think, is not to worry about the meaning. Least of all should you attempt a prose translation of it. That is an absolutely fatal mistake. It will take you nowhere but away from the poetic meaning of the piece. Meanings will come with reflection and re-readings. I am still at that stage with The White Threshold. Other once-difficult poems have revealed themselves more easily. I recall the first time I heard Chinese poetry recited aloud in its original tongue. I was in my teens. Obviously, I did not find it intellectually satisfying, but the feelings clicked in. I thought it was beautiful.
But what if there is no contact, either with the mind or the emotions? I have written earlier - as I know Jim has - about the personal difficlties that arise when you can make no sense of a work on which other people, whose abilities and judgements you respect absolutely, are lavishing great praise. What do you do? What do you tell yourself? That all these people of sound judgement (so you believe) are deluded? I have this problem with Tracey Emin and the now famous (or infamous) bed - which I take as an example, for I have the same problem with most of her work. And it is this: I can see what she is at, so to that extent the brain is engaged, but it does not respond because she has done nothing with it, it is still, in my opinion, raw material. It is not a found item, yet she has not sublimated it. (Yes, I know, I have changed the usage of the word sublimate, applying it to an object, rather than an impulse, but it is as near as I can get to saying what I want to say.) I see what she sets out to do, but cannot see that she has done it, or even tried to do it. She has not turned her material into a work of art. Sadly, neither does she speak to me through the emotions, not beyond the feelings that she arouses, the normal human feelings that all must surely have when we hear about the troubles of her early upbringing and the traumas they have left her with in adult life. But as attributes of a would-be work of art they do not speak, for the very same reasons that prevent it working on me intellectually. But there are these many people whom I admire who absolutely rave about her work. So what is a poor bewildered chap to think?
I have an almost equal difficulty with someone like Francis Bacon, not because the raw material has not been processed, for it obviously has, but because the point of it is lost on me. I join the ranks of the philistines and ask: why does he have to paint nothing but what I can only interpret as ugly and evil, a distortion of reality that does not seem to portray any hidden truth? If you do not know his work, click on the link I have given to see one of his portraits in the famous/infamous Screaming Popes series.These are a real difficulty for some, but how would a person think about the Pope, the ultimate authority, who was a 100% dyed-in-the-wool atheist and card-carrying homosexual who had been brought up in Ireland? Interestingly, he expresses my heart/head dichotomy in rather different terms: Some paint comes across directly to the nervous system, other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain. He was not interested in the latter. Art for him was completely visceral or it was nothing. You coud not talk about an image; if you explained or analysed it, you rendered it worthless. The distortions that most satisfied him were those he took from medical books, of bodies twisted into grotesque shapes. And yet he is perhaps the most popular English artist since Turner - but turner painted pleasant landscapes, stuff the public like to see. recently a study for a figure by Bacon went for £14million. The critics (mostly) adore him. What am I missing?
The two images given here to the right and above depict two of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the next three are works by a great hero of mine, Graham Sutherland, a painter in the best traditions of English landscape painting. The first of the Sutherlands is Boulder in a Landscape, on the extreme right is Thorn Head and lower down Entrance to a Path. You may think there is a superficial affinty, a blood brothership almost between the Bacons and the Sutherlands.
Many have remarked upon it when I have professed to being moved in heart and mind by the Sutherlands, whilst being left out in the cold by the Bacons.
To me the difference is all, the resemblances merely show the importance that motive makes to the all-important processing of the work.
Yet maybe it is a blind spot that I have. Maybe, maybe.... but to return to my original contrast: there is an important similarity (and difference) as between Bacon's work and Emin's. The similarity relates to their childhoods. Emin's I think is well known. It was, as I have said, traumatic.The nature of the trauma was that of not being wanted - or at east believing that she was not wanted, a trauma still unresolved. In Bacon's case three facts are critical: the first that he was an ugly child, told he was ugly by his parents; the second that he would often visit his grandmother whose second husband would cut off the claws of cats and feed them to the dogs before tying the cats up by their legs and torturing them; the third critical fact is that Bacon discovered he enjoyed witnessing this. Given the emotionally vulnerable nature of a young boy, it is not difficult to see how this last could happen. It perhaps was not pure enjoyment that he felt, but there was something there in his feelings that he could not deal with, perhaps has never been able to deal with, is still trying to deal with. It has been said that these figures at the base of the crucifixion are animals with human physical characteristics, because we are animals. The truth it portrays is that of our ugliness towards each other and ourselves.
But it is, as I say, when a work of art speaks directly and 100% to both head and heart that we experience the sublime. Let me therefore give an example of a poem that does that for me. (I confine my literary examples to poetry partly from personal preference and partly because the point is more easily and thoroughly made than would be posssible with, say, a novel.) I have chosen T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets (read all) Here are the first two of the three verses that make up Part 1.
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.
I have to confess that I find that sublime. And my final is image is of a sculpture that I find equally magnificent: The Horseman by Marino Marini.
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