It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
" 'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
Is art, do you think, like love: something that we recognise for what it is when we run into it, but deucedly hard to define? Or is it more like religion: we know, within limits, what it is, and what it is supposed to do, but not where it comes from - except that it has something to do with the very oldest part of our brain and its now long-forgotten, mystic past?
I ask the questions after reading an article by Richard Eyre in which he addresses these questions. Or to speak more accurately, he recently gave a speech at the opening of a new theatre at The Cheltenham Ladies College, an edited version of which was published in The Independent. Understandably, the first half of his speech - or at least, the edited version of it - was devoted to the theatre and was in large part autobiographical. But then he weighed in with: Why do we need theatre? In fact, why do we need the arts? and a little later: But what do we mean by "art"? A simple enough question, one which we perhaps should ask ourselves with some regularity. He then proceeded to outline his definition and began to carry me along with him, mentally nodding in assent at the points he was raising.
First of all, though, what it is like: passionate, complex, mysterious, thrilling; and then what it does: tells us the truth about ourselves, helps us to fit the disparate pieces of the world together, helps us to try to make form out of chaos; and then, finally, what it must and must not be: has to be ambitious, not satisfied with wanting to please, has to struggle against mediocrity, aspire to be excellent, must have form, there has to be complexity, there must be mystery, must be serious, can't be trivial,there has to be an element of pleasure, of sensual enjoyment (though, unusually, there was no actual mention of beauty), there has to be a moral sense...
Nothing there to disagree with, but as I read on, I found my mental nods turning to frowns of concern. I was reading some sort of creed, it was becoming too prescriptive. Now, I'm adding a can't of my own: for me, art cannot be prescriptive. But I still had a problem: I agreed with the individual points he was making (mostly), but not in the context in which he was making them. Not in answer to the question What is art? For me, he was answering some other question. He seemed more on the right track, though, when he began to speak of art as something that gives form to life and to the world in which we live. And then again when he credited it with the ability to give the world and its threats and bullying ways a human scale. So much in politics, technology, science and human relationships is mega these days, and seemingly beyond our emotional resources to tackle. Art can step in at that point. By its fruits shall you know it. But art is a very complex elephant indeed, with many trunks and tusks and tails etc, and it is his use of the imperative that worries me. Too many musts. If he had said art must be or do at least one of these... but the implication was that it had to be comprehensive.
And then somewhere into my thinking there floated the matter of Sir Andrew Motion and his poem An Equal Voice, written and published (in The Guardian) as a tribute to the war veterans for Armistice Day. The poem was well received until Ben Shephard, who had spent ten years collecting the reminiscences of veterans for his book A War of Nerves accused Motion of plagiarism, of having lifted 17 passages from his book and stitched them together to produce his poem.
The following were given as an example:-
First, this from A War of Nerves:
"War from behind the lines is a dizzying jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports..."
"marching men with grimy faces and shining eyes..."
"bloody clothes and leggings lying outside the door of a field hospital..."
"I have been in the front line so long, seen many things..."
Then this from Andrew Motion's An Equal Voice:
"War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports..."
"marching men with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes..."
"bloody clothes and leggings outside the canvas door of a field hospital..."
"I have been away too long and seen too many things..."
Andrew Motion's reply was that "all real artists are magpies". Be that as it may, it did open up in my mind the whole question of found art and how it is reconciled with whatever definition, explicit or implicit, you have for the act of art-making and its outcomes. Of course, we could say the same for any one of scores, perhaps hundreds, of art's various genres. If, with Richard Eyre, you believe that art to be art must demonstrate a mastery of some supreme skill, then you may have to rule out found art. Unless you are prepared to argue that the ability to see a poem in, say, a passage of prose, is sufficient skill in itself.
There is, I believe, nothing to beat going back to basics at such times, and for me basics often means child art or primitive art. I don't believe I have ever met a child who was worried about what art was for. The purpose of pretty much every other man-made thing in the universe worries them - but not art. So I go back to Raymond. I do believe I have blogged about Raymond before - though I may have called him by a different name. Raymond, though, was his name.. Raymond was eight years old, or thereabouts, backward (illiterate), but bright. He was in what these days we would call the Special Needs class, but was then known as the Remedial class. I was a brand new teacher fresh out of college, the last person on the staff who should have been given that group (because the least experienced), but the only one to volunteer. By such considerations are the fates of the innocent decided. It was a Friday morning (I think!) and our first lesson was science. I had to introduce them to the latest theory about how the universe came into being - not what you're thinking, for back then it was Continuous Creation. (A pupil once asked me if I was alive in the Stone Age. More than that: I go back to before The Big Bang!) The lesson concluded and it was time to troop into the hall for assembly. There the head gave us all the Creation of the world from The Book of Genesis. Raymond was becoming distressed. Following on from assembly we had a short choosing period. Raymond asked if he could have two large sheets of drawing paper. I agreed. He taped them together, then turned them over and began to paint. He didn't have long, didn't need long. Very soon he had a fantastic landscape covering the sheets. There were mountains, rivers, a valley, trees, a sun in the sky, stars - and two moons. In the valley were two figures, a small figure pointing up at one of the moons and a large figure looming over him and with his arm stretched out towards him, palm uppermost. His distress was evaporating markedly as he worked.
Tell me about it, I said. The little man, I was told, was Adam. He was pointing at one of the moons. (The Russians had, only a day or two before, launched their first Sputnik.) Adam was saying to God: See, I put that one up there! So I asked him what God had to say to that and was told: He said, "And I just made this little spider. Now beat that!" The consensus of opinion on the staff and elsewhere was that the dialogue could not have been Raymond's own. He had probably heard it somewhere. At home, maybe. Or at church. He'd picked it up somewhere. Yes, he probably had, but in my book he had processed it and made it his own. Yes, all true artists are magpies, but it's what you do with the stolen milk bottle tops that counts - and that may depend on why you stole them in the first place.
Have I answered the question? Have I defined what is art? No, I don't believe I have - and I'm not sure that I could, not to my own satisfaction. I have simply given an example of what I believe to have been a piece of art by anyone's standard, adult or child.
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