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Sunday 3 June 2007

Wordsworth in Rap?

Our culture has something of a problem with fun. We pay lip service to it: if asked about an event or activity we have recently been engaged in, we are as like as not to say: "Oh, it was fun!", but scratch the surface and the record sticks, the inappropriateness or the insincerity shows through. The remark did not say what it said.

Radio 4 attempted the nigh-impossible just recently: they ran a programme in their Ha Ha series, called Ha Ha Art. It was, of course, all Ha Ha and no art, though it did make one telling point: that when the subject (humour, fun, whatever...) begins to get "serious" we approach it as outsiders.

Think of two or three works of art that have meant something to you... go on, say "The Ring"! No? Okay, you don't really have to get that serious... Got them? Can you honestly say that you think them fun? Any of them? All of them? If you can manage one yes, I congratulate you, but now there's a supplementary: can you imagine any of our worthy critics confessing to having found them "fun" - as part of a "serious" critical appraisal of the work concerned? I have heard such confessions on occasion, but it's very unusual and mostly confined to certain genres.

In a previous life I was, for my sins, a Methodist lay preacher. I always felt extremely uncomfortable when some kind soul would say to me after a service that she (It nearly always was a she.) had enjoyed the sermon. The Protestant ethic, as I was taught it, did not allow for sermons to be enjoyed. They were supposed to make the good worshipper uncomfortable in the presence of the Almighty. After all, if the flesh is enjoying something, it can't be doing the soul much good. Or can it? (I suspect that we have two souls, incidentally, an aesthetic soul and an eternal soul - maybe the first, with a little T.L.C., can develop into the second, but neither of them can find room for fun, that would seem a rum do.) The idea sticks, that medicine, to do you good, must not have a pleasant taste.

A few days ago I overheard some mothers talking about the staff at their children's school. They (the staff) had "taken themselves off" to some comfortable, not to say luxurious, watering hole for a few days for a conference. Ha! Ha! was the response of the mothers to that! - and they may have been right, for after all, they know the staff concerned! What concerns me, though, is their assumption, stated forcibly by several, that whatever the motives of the teachers, nothing of any practical value was going to come out of the jaunt because they were all having fun! The two just do not mix.

I'm not advocating Wordsworth in rap, or anything for that matter in terms of creating art. Simply that we try to look at, or listen to, art free from the usual spin and assumptions. For example, I have always found Brueghel's "Icarus" amusing, fun, humorous - I don't really mind which tag you apply. Yes, there's a trth being illustrated here, but surely I can't be alone in thinking there's a bit of fun going on as well. Or can I? I first saw a reproduction of it when I was quite young, and found it amusing before anyone told me how serious it was - as though the two were mutually exclusive - and now that Auden's poem has imbued it with another layer of seriousness, you can be looked at askance if you own to finding it fun.

Another question: how many works can you think of (without too much effort) that might be thought fun? Or how many artists whose name is associated in your mind with fun. I would think of Brueghel's Icarus (naturally!), Beardsley and Hogarth and, for poetry, Under Milk Wood (An obvious choice? But wait for my next - and last - question.), then almost any Mira, Dali, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matta, Koons, Lowry, de Kooning or Tinguely's sculptures. (I have purposely avoided some areas, eg Shakespeare plays, but you will think of many that I could have included.) You have your list? How many in that list could you also deem to be serious? I will have a bet that this last question is easier than was my first.

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