I drift in and out of sleep when the show is on, that way I find that it makes sense. (Quote from the comments on a BBC Radio 2 Blog.)
David Lister, writing in The Independent a few days ago (26.08) and commenting on the current popularity of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, gave an amusing account of its recent rise and rise. Music generally has been more in demand it seems, which more than one commentator has attributed to the financial downturn and the need which the populace has suddenly discovered for tranquility and a spiritual dimension. Certainly music can supply both of those commodities, but The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain... I am not sure.
According to Lister it has been variously described as Hilarious. Glorious. Original. Well, just about every superlative under the sun. His comments were prompted by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain having been given a full billing in the BBC's Promenade Concert Programme. He went along to see. The occasion occasioned great excitement, he wrote. It was a complete sell-out. There were queues all round the block, he told us. Many, including the director, had brought their own ukuleles along. He made it sound like A Last Night at the Proms.
For Lister at any rate the promise was more than the reality, it seems. He reported that atThe Ride of The Valkyries he smiled. At Beethoven's Ode to Joy he half-smiled. After that the novelty began to wear off. Finally, he admitted, he just didn't get it. Now I have to admit that I have not heard The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, so cannot pronounce upon its achievements, its musicality or anything else. Whether or not I would have got it had I been there, I have no idea. What struck me, reading Lister's column, was the universality of the experience. It is universal in the sense that it happens, has happened, to us all (hands up any brave individual who wishes to claim that he has never been in the position of not getting it) and it is universal in the sense that it is common to all the arts. Maybe there have been times when it wouldn't have been so all-embracing, but today it is.
Which leads me again (I have raised it before, as no doubt the chorus of groans, could you but hear them, would indicate) to the question of what do you do when confronted by an alleged or intended work of art that you truly do not get. I am not referring to an encounter with a piece of art that just doesn't happen to be to your taste - I can be an even bigger bore on "taste", but that's not for this post, you will be pleased to hear. No, we are not talking don't like, but truly don't get.
I have in the past waxed prosaically about the poverty of the instruction I was given at school concerning all things aesthetic. Okay it was war time and there was a dearth of good teachers, but nowhere and at no time were we given any clue as to how to approach art, poetry, drama, music or any other art form that life might one day have placed before us for our approval. So far as literature was concerned the approach was that of good old comprehension. Well do I recall moments such as the following from a reading round the class session:
Me: Lady, you are the cruellest she alive if you will lead these graces to the grave and leave the world no copy. (Quoted from memory.)
Dicky Bird: What did he mean by that, King?
Me: He wanted her to have her portrait painted, sir.
Roars of hysterical laughter from the class. (An unusual success for me.) Roars of something quite different from Dicky Bird - and the rest of the session spent sitting in the corridor.
Not the sort of teaching - nor the sort of behaviour on the part of the pupil, I admit it - likely to send you out into the world equipped to cope with the difficulties of Eliot's Waste Land or post-modern literature - and remember, as I sometimes forget, That Eliot had written The Waste Land some 25 years before this, also that we were then well into the period of Post Modernism, we who were still reading The Jackdaw of Rheims, Lochinvar and other such versifications. I never did hear any mention of Eliot within those hallowed walls, much less Ezra Pound. What chance then, that Marcel Duchamp's famous "Fountain" - for which think: urinal? might get an airing in the art room?
There is an oft reiterated question which to my mind brings this whole question sharply into focus: "Ah, but is it art?" We have all asked it at some point, I guess, if only to evade a more difficult or soul-searching response, but it is a question which says more about the questioner than the questioned, for it is saying , in effect: "Yes, I do see that this found object, or this installation, or this whatever it may be, has something about it, but please point out what it has, specifically, that rings my art bell, falls within the parameters that for me define what is and what is not art.
Art must have its boundaries. Only the true anarchist thinks otherwise, but there always will be works and artists pushing at those boundaries. It is as though we have our own internal Venn diagrams. There is a circle for art (or maybe several), one for poetry (or maybe several), another for philosophy (or maybe several), and so on. We are confronted with an installation and the brain clicks in, weighing up the possibilities, where does this one fit? Maybe it goes in one of the overlaps, it's both this and that as well...
Back in my fourth paragraph I asked the question: what do you do when confronted by an alleged or intended work of art that you truly do not get. We must have our boundaries, but surely we must keep them flexible. When something truly original comes along it will not quite fit, for it will be something you had not foreseen when drawing up those boundaries. Indeed, by definition it will be something that no one had foreseen. So what could be the response? You could ask yourself: What preconceptions do I have, what assumptions have I made in the past that are preventing me from getting it? (The answer may be none, of course, the fault may not be in you, it may be another case of the Emperor's New Clothes.) The first occasion on which I can recall the question arising was back in 1952/3. What I recall is a public furore over Reg Butler's sculpture The Unknown Political Prisoner. (Butler is shown with an earlier version of the work, in my first image.)Had it ever been built it would have risen 300 - 400 feet in the air. It was, Butler said, specifically in memory of all who died in the concentration camps. The final maquette was destroyed by a Hungarian refugee whilst it was on display at The Tate Gallery. Everyone had a view about it. Few were complimentary. I cannot recall any work of art before it being given such a high profile. Certainly nothing to do with the arts had ever caused such controversy and consternation in our rather typical (I would think) household. The media then were not what they have become since, of course, but such as they were they went to town on it. It was exhibited at The Venice Biennial and at The Tate Gallery. Everybody that I knew - and I knew no-one who was in the habit of showing any interest in, let alone speaking about art - was talking about it and asking: But it's not art - is it? I, for my part, was thinking: Mmmmmm, it's got something... but it's not sculpture! Sculpture was solid. You chipped it out of a socking great block of granite. This was something, alrighty, but not that!
But then another thought dawned, a really transformative thought (I could have written about this for my contribution two post back): it's not beautiful in the normally accepted sense. I had to come to terms - for I was by then determined to fit The Unknown Political Prisoner into my Venn diagram labelled Sculpture - with the fact that it had nothing to do with beauty per se. Nothing to do with seeing in the visual sense at all - other than the fact that you had to see it for the brain to register it. So then scrub beauty, scrub the idea that art MUST have to do with beauty, scrub the idea that sculpture has to be something solid, like a gravestone - or bigger - and then.... well, and then, what? Does accepting all those modifications to the boundaries of your mental Venn diagram open the door to something else? Is that one of the obstacles that have prevented you from getting it? Does the work now offer you something that had not occurred to you before? Does it give something by way of compensation for the treasured belief(s) you might have surrendered?
I know what Dicky Bird would have advised. He would have said to read around the subject, the artist or the work - if the latter is big enough, important enough to have had books written on it. Much more chance now, of course, with all the reference materials of the Internet at our disposal. There are those - and sometimes I am one of them - who will see a problem here. The work of art should stand by itself, without explanation, without reference to the fact that the artist's wife had just suffocated their two children or what ever. And so it should, but for those who are of another time or culture, and so not immersed in the power and spontaneity of the artist's sources, who don't know the symbolism, the history, can't see the parallels, or for those who are faced by something new in the history of art, it can help to have notes - such as those on The Waste Land, for example, though they are hardly sufficient, given the extraordinary number of references. Indeed, unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Eliot's references it might be considered essential to do a great deal of reading around the subject - eventually, though not for the first reading(s) I would suggest. Let it sink in first. Let the words and their cadences do their work before looking further afield.
What would Dicky Bird have made of this, I wonder: from The White Threshold by W.S.Graham.
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 white haired 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
Speaks 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.
I know what Dicky Bird would have done. He would have written out a prose translation or equivalent of it. It wouldn't have done him much good, I think. I found it completely incomprehensible first time I encountered it. No strategy unlocked it. Only let it sink in from repeated readings did any good. (You might think that the poetic equivalent of drifting in and out of sleep. I wouldn't feel inclined to argue, but it worked for me - I think!) Whatever. You just have to find your own way in. There's no right way and wrong way. If Graham could have written it more simply, I am sure he would have. Interestingly, when I went to look up the quote, I found these words by Graham:-
The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words. It is words in a certain order, good or bad by the significance of its addition to life and not to be judged by any other value put upon it by imagining how or why or by what kind of man it was made.
I think Dicky Bird would have felt more comfortable with this from Tom Thumb by RF Langley - though maybe he should not have!
We should accept the obvious facts of physics.
The world is made entirely of particles in
fields of force. Of course. Tell it to Jack. Except it
doesn't seem to be enough tonight. Not because
he’s had his supper and the upper regions are
cerulean, as they have been each evening
since the rain. Nor just because it’s nine PM and
this is when, each evening since we came, the fifty
swifts, as passionately excited as any
particles in a forcefield, are about to end
their vesper flight by escalating with thin shrieks
to such a height that my poor sight won’t see them go.
Though I imagine instantly what it might be
to separate and, sleeping, drift so far beyond
discovery that any flicker which is left
signs with a scribble underneath the galaxy.
If you're still with me, you deserve a medal, but instead I am giving you a challenge: to find something that would not normally be associated with art, poetry or music but which when brought into focus by you begins to work on you in some way that might make it a candidate for one of the art circles in your inner Venn diagram. Which is to say, can you find a piece of found art? It could be a phrase on a corn flake packet, a snatch of conversation overheard in a shop, a mis-shapen potato, a smashed-up car or a workman's tool of some sort. It might be a sequence of sounds recorded on a country walk. (No, why country? Might just as easily be in some town centre.) You get the idea, I'm sure. Something that did not start out as a piece of art, but which, now that you have picked it out and shone your light upon it, begins to act like one. I, for my part, am going to cheat. I already have mine. Two posts ago I posted some pictures from a day spent at Wisley. One of many remarkable interludes from that day was walking among the fruit trees. At one point we sat down for a few moments. A family came by, and one member of it, a girl of - I would guess - about eight years, was pointing to the pears and saying what they suggested to her. (Thinking back to my childhood and climbing ladders to pick the fruit, I could not but be impressed by the fact that all - and I do mean all - of it was within reach, could be picked from the ground, most of it by a child.) This particular child was letting her imagination rip: this pear was an old man's head; another was sand castle. Amnd then this:
Look mum, a honey bubble dripping from a spoon! So we could argue about the word dripping being used of a bubble; maybe she had conflated two images, but not only was the phrase couched as a perfect iambic pentameter, but she spoke it rhythmically and the image was exactly right: the colour, the shape, and the sun imparting to it the appearance of a slight translucence. So it's not a world-beater, but if I come up with a better one, I'll post it for sure.
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