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Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Blind Men and the Elephant.

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.


Jinksy said...

I believe the word 'art' has as many interpretations as the number of eyes which read this tiny word, or ears which hear it spoken! The main thing is that people recognise its existence in relation to their own understanding of the world around them. What a dull world it would be if no art existed.

steven said...

i share this sufi tale with my class each year as a means of bringing them to see (odd that) that we see through what we know which inclines us to restrict our perspective. my goal for my students is to step out of the box of their knowing. art is one means. my work with them is to move them beyond re-presenting what they see to re-creating what they see. "steal from those who have gone before" is my suggestion to them as a place to begin to know art. steven

Unknown said...

Excellent post, & I love the part about re-shaping material & the "magpie" nature of art. The other thing about Raymond's story is he was using creation to make sense of something, which seems important. Perhaps art is "effective" to the extent that the artist's process of making sense (be she/he poet or painter or musician) connects with the "audience's" process.

Of course, there's always the Louis Armstrong theory. When he was asked, "What is jazz," he answered, "If you don’t know, don’t mess with it." One thing about kids--they usually don't have to ask.

Raj said...

art i feel is a way to express oneself. as simple as that. :)

of course some people try to sell it but then there are people who can buy anything. :)

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think every special needs teacher has, at some time or other, had a Raymond in her class. I did indeed have one called Raymond, who now owns a string of market stalls and drives a Rolls Royce. It is out of the mouths and the eyes and the drawings of such children that truth often emerges.
As to what is art - I think that is one of those macrocosmic questions to which there is not certain answer.
For me there is art all around - in the cobweb, the starry sky, the flower garden, ice on the pond - as well as in art galleries.
Trying to define what art is just makes my brain hurt, Dave, so I shall not try.

Rosaria Williams said...

Dave, this is a cogent and deliberate attempt to make us think along. Well done! I've enjoyed all of your examples, and agreed with your conclusions.

What about Beauty? Are you going to take that up next?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with the Lakeviewer and would love to find out what beaty is.

Thank you for this enjoyable post.


Rachel Cotterill said...

Personally, I long ago gave up worrying about what art 'is'. No-one worries about the nature of theatre or the novel... it seems to be something about (certain) artists to try and find the boundaries. On a personal level I'm more interested in whether I like something, whether it affects me, irrespective of whether it meets someone else's definition.

Carl said...

Define Art, Beauty, God, Truth...

Ask ten people and you will get ten different interpretations.

They are simply not defineable except by the heart, mind and experience of each person.. Making them uniquely individual concepts.

Therin lies the magic... but also the problem when these things are defined for you by others. Look inward not outward to answer these questions I think.

Wonderful post Dave! I love when you explore this topic and we all start thinking about it.

My only advice is to be exposed to as much different art as possible and think about what it means to you as a person.


susan sonnen said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. :D

Mark Kerstetter said...

"Going back to basics" is what art is. So are definitions a part of it. Art is like love, and yet it isn't, like religion and yet unlike it. Not everything (as in 'art is what you say it is') but the uniquely human - and genuine - response to everything. There are those busy analyzing 'end' theories (Post-everything), and this is their way of getting back to basics, trying to wrestle the overpowering load of a culture's history of definitions of art and work through to their own understanding. Others don't need to do this. They can see what a child does naturally.

As simply as I can put it: life gets messy, always and all the time. Art is the corrective. That is why it is both most contemporary and most ancient at one and the same time.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, I am reading now this latest post of yours but I still have two issues from before:

-I am reading The Glass Room now and despite the strangeness of the subject I am enjoying it although I feel suspicious about the future developing of the story...but I loved so much "The Fall" so I trust Mawer.
I finished Wolf Hall last week, it's powerful with thunderous, bright passages but in some points difficult to follow, I sometimes found it difficult to understand WHO was talking in the endless stream of conversations woven tightly to descriptions...

-I remember in the past a great poem of yours about a secret passage in a wood ( sorry for my vagueness or a tree, a hole...well, a secret place. And I found this:
Silk Road Review, a Literary Crossroads, invites submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and translations for upcoming issues. The magazine will celebrate its fifth year of production and expand to two print issues per year in 2010. We are interested in publishing compelling and finely crafted writing from locations around the world. We are also producing a special issue on “secret places” and welcome writing that would fit the topic.

Your work would be perfect as a "Secret Place" submission, wouldn't it?
Silk Road is very nice magazine.
Years ago they a published a section of a poem of mine.

Carl said...

Dave -
I just ordered Ulverton and the Glass Room. They will be my reading material for the long Thanksgiving weekend here in the US. Looking forward to a couple of good reads.


CailinMarie said...

this is heady and beyond my mood for this evening - still - it is such a topic. I am so adgitated by so much of what people DO call art which isn't - and that which is and gets over looked. Surely it is expression but there is so much trash out there that is no doubt expression. And yet it isn't necessarily skill that makes it art or negates art. But it involves depth, and the resonance between the piece and the soul of one who sees, hears, reads, touches, or otherwise experiences it

Shadow said...

art is undoubtedly that as seen by the individual...

Dave King said...

Interpretation... definition, yes, we're talking the same language. I think you're saying you are one who believes it's like love - you know it when you see it.

There must be many things the poem could illustrate, but that's as good as any. I used to prefer the standing on the shoulders of giants analogy, but I'm coming round to the magpie. It gives more license.

An important and rather fascinating point you raise concerning the artist's process gelling with that of the audience. I shall need to give that some thought.

I hadn't heard the Louis Armstrong remark, so thanks for that.

A I said in the post, children ask about most things in life, but never need to ask about the purpose of art. They instinctively know - as they do about play, for example.

Hi and thanks for commenting. Like the take. Of course, you are quite right, it is a simple matter of expressing oneself. Like playing football - but if you can earn a living at it, well...!

Sorry, Weaver. I really didn't mean to make your brain hurt! You are right about the Raymonds of this world, though.

No, it was a deliberate and cogent attempt to think of a post for this weekend.

Funny you should ask: I, too saw Saturday's programme - though late last night - and with my thoughts still slowing down from the post, and the two topics being almost synonymous, I thought what you seem to have thought. Intruth, I don't know yet. I may.

Welcome and thanks, but... am I being ganged up upon?

Odd you should say that, for Richard Eyre's article was principally about what is theatre and why is it so important. He only later in his talk broadened it out to include all art. I totally agree with youir last sentence.

As usual, a great deal of truth and wisdom in a few sentences. Posts woukd lose most of their value deprived of the comments.

Thanks Susan

My remark to Carl applies equally to your comment, I think. Thanks.

Thank you very much for those comments. I haven't yet read Wolf Hall, but tend to do so shortly. Good of you to think of me re the submissions to Silk Road. I will unearth the poem and have a new look at it. I am grateful to you.

Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Hi and welcome. Your remarks, I think, are spot on. Art is first of all an expression of something, but, for example, you see so many poems on the web in the writing of which people have just expressed themselves and done no crafting at all - or so it would seem. That might be self-expression or therapy, it might be important to the author, and therefore should not be denigrated, but to my mind it is not art.


Tabor said...

I was going to add something, but am now so mentally exhausted from reading all the comments. I guess the one question that lingers from your friend's lection is why does art have to be serious?

Jim Murdoch said...

No, we're not magpies. Magpies steal and hoard what they steal. We copy and transform; to use a popular verb, we recycle. There is nothing new under the sun. That is a fact. Even in science all they do is take what's been on the Earth for generations and muck around with it; this laptop used to be something else, something natural, and now it's something artificial. It's not art. That was not the intent of the designers. But it is a tool for the creation of art. Art serves a different purpose. Art is something that provokes questions from those who come in contact with it, the most common one being: "Yes, but is it art?" I imagine.

All art is is a source of stimulus. We approach all art with that expectation. And just as when it comes to physical stimulation some of us are more open to having our minds and hearts stimulated than others. We crave stimuli though in the same way that we crave food but not everyone's taste buds are as sensitive as others which is why we have highbrow art and lowbrow art. Personally I consider myself middlebrow and there are times I like to look up and other times I like to look down; there is pleasure to be found in both.

Art . . . just consider the prefix . . . art is artificial. Is a sunrise art or is an identical painting of a sunrise art? Both should evoke a similar response. But just in the same way as humans took sound, analysed it, organised it and turned noise into music so artists do the same. One can overanalyse things and as soon as you define something you attempt to constrict it and if there's one thing art has proven very good at over the years it's wriggling free of the definitions men try and place on it.

"I don't know what it is but I like it." That's an answer I'd be happy to get when someone is faced with my own art. If you know what it is then it can be named, defined and that's not nearly as important as many people think. I want people to like what I do. I want them to go away and think about the content not the packaging.

Dave King said...

Mmm, I did wonder that when I read it, but then he qualified that by saying it can't be trivial. I still find him altogether too prescriptive, though.

Dave King said...

Transform and purpose being the operative words, I think. Without transformation, it seems to me that it is plagiarism. The question remains: is taking a text from a prose environment and plonking it down in a verse setting a sufficient transformation? Purpose, too, seems essential for something to acquire the status of a work of art.

I agree with your comments on lowbrow, middle- and highbrow art. Too many folk, I think, cut themselves off from a whole swathe of art. Art, when you don't know quite what it is or why, can be art at its most powerful. It can work almost subliminally.

Aniket Thakkar said...

Everything can be defined by art, yet nothing can define it.

Everyone has its own interpretations of it poetry, painting, music, love... no one can define the right way to do things. Everyone feels them differently.

Thank you for giving us so much to think about.

Dianne said...

I love the dialogue, and is art a gift?

Thank you for the Haiku comment and the links.

Here is a website I have been following, for you.

Keep inking!

Dianne said...

Here it is....!

Dave King said...

I love your opening sentence. Absolutely true.

Thanks for that.

A Cuban In London said...

'I was reading some sort of creed, it was becoming too prescriptive.'

And I, too, have found myself in the same situation. When the critic or specialist's choice becomes 'the ony choice', art stops being subjective and becomes an objective sword with which to stab you, repeatedly. You're punished for your taste (how dare you like that?).

As for Andrew, not having heard of the controversy, my advice would be to admit defeat and bow out graciously. He is a goood poet as it is. But he made a mistake.

Excellent post.

Greetings from London.

Dick said...

An excellent post, Dave.

I guess the line between a robust affirmation of certain principles and the utterance of creed is a narrow one. Maybe the conditionality that comes with 'should' saves the statements from the imperative of 'must'. Presented thus I'd be quite happy with that little set of the characteristics of art.

Andrew Motion as benign magpie or arrant plagiarist? The latter.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

I enjoyed reading through your post and the comments - which is as much as I feel qualified to say!

readingsully2 said...

I have known beautiful people who are ugly.

I have known ugly people who are beautiful.

Ugly...the creatures on Science Fiction series.

Ugly....attitudes (certain attitudes)

Ugly....trash and garbage along a road.

Beautiful...baby animals
Beautiful....locations, locations, locations.

Unknown said...

I think there is an art to understanding art. When I look at a painting and I like say the yellow paint near the top. Then, someone comes along who has technical and expressive reasons why that yellow paint was put in that spot and explains them to me. I am joyful. Like a child, I understood it was good but then the confirmation of reasons added to my fulfillment. There isn't always someone to help with that WHY.... but thank goodness for people like you Dave! Your expressive posts can help people like me reach a better understanding about our own artistic thinking, Thank you so much.

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