The Manner of Our Going

First published on The Bubble (January 2011):

There is a poem in Andrew Motion’s collection The Cinder Path called “My Masterpiece”. The poet imagines that he is, in some other life, a Renaissance artist and describes his great work: a Madonna. This suggests not just the continuity of artistic endeavour across the centuries and between the arts, but something else as well. The master looks beyond his central motif, proudly informing us that,

… my real triumph
consists in the view
extending behind her,

the mile upon mile
of blue-green hills
with their miniature lives.

These lives are depicted in a few evocative and sympathetic strokes, showing us the importance of the everyday in creating a tapestry from which the significance of individual lives can emerge. There is a lesson and an imprecation in this for both the artist and the audience. Openness to art’s value in daily life goes hand in hand with openness to the value of the everyday to and in art. As Clive James and others have rightly pointed out, Shakespeare’s greatness lies in how comprehensively he depicts and evokes our humanity. If Shakespeare had neglected the mechanicals his plays might have appeared just so mechanical in their turn. But what we gain thereby is an appreciation of the importance of the everyday amidst a highfalutin’ Hamlet or fey Oberon. Moreover, Shakespeare’s ubiquity – his all-pervading culture presence – allows for a greater realisation of his poetry’s value. The resulting prevalence of Shakespearean quotation offers an invitation to make art more central to the way we approach our lives, and our lives more central to the manner in which we approach art.

The challenge is to follow that invitation to its logical conclusion – to approach the difficult and controversial works of contemporary art with the same double-handed intention. On the one hand, to try and meet works on their own terms, and on the other, to resist the rarefied and the hermetic by placing those terms at the centre of our lives. Carl Andre’s infamous Equivalent VIII sparked one of the great controversies of modern art and still leaves people guessing to this day. That work – a rectangular pile of 125 fire bricks in two layers – caused such controversy because no one could understand why it should be of value – certainly they couldn’t understand why it should be of such value that their taxes should be spent on it. Shakespeare draws us from the theatre yet exists only there or perhaps on the page: Carl Andre’s work draws us to and depends on the gallery for its status. As many pointed out at the time – and many still do – outside the Tate it’s just a pile of bricks. Yet that is precisely its value to art and to our lives. In highlighting the role of the gallery in the identification of cultural value Andre interrogates those who are paying attention as to the manner in which they approach the arts.

Aristotle thought living well depended in large part on a breadth of experience, and in a time when the arts are financially threatened we would do well to remember that the greatest ideas and adventures most of us are acquainted with are those in art, literature, theatre, and so on. By engaging the imagination and the intellect art engages with and enriches our lives. By approaching life in the same imaginative way, rather than saving it for the gallery and the theatre, we can discover value and meaning in the unlikeliest of places. “Great art picks up where nature ends,” wrote Marc Chagall and in this he was precisely wrong. Great art picks apart nature and penetrates the view extending behind her. Poets have recognised and revealed the value of the natural and the everyday for a long time: Philip Larkin was one of the best and Motion was a disciple. In “Trees” Larkin explored these structures and rhythms as they speak to one another across and through the natural and the human – the seasons and the years pointing to a common meaning made manifest in art and life.

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

One of the most famous passages of Ecclesiastes runs thus, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” That doesn’t mean accepting the value of everything. We needn’t bow to the postmodern here. Rather it means accepting that everything might have a value in the project of building one’s life. To resist the general pessimism surrounding Ecclesiastes for a moment, one needn’t make a lack of discernment the centre of life. Rather, a breadth of experience and an openness to the potential value of the unfamiliar both inside the gallery and out – as with Andre and a multitude of other contemporary artists – is of as much moral and social significance and benefit as artistic. Matthew Arnold’s high cultural snobbishness aside, he got it right when he instructed us “to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” It would be odd if that didn’t include the intuitively uncomfortable or the downright strange – and I haven’t even mentioned Damien Hirst or the Chapman Brothers.

Art is never merely art. Making time for “culture” every now and again – and feeling mildly worthy whilst doing so – belies an impoverished attitude toward the place of the arts in life as well as life’s place in art. Motion’s “miniature lives” is no belittlement of the everyday. On the contrary, it emphasises the manner in which such lives constitute great art. Great art fosters an enriched life in its turn. Not for nothing did Le Corbusier call his buildings “machines for living”. They weren’t particularly homely and keeping the rain out is for many a rather central concern when choosing a house. Still, you can’t win everything: and on the entanglement of art and life he was exactly right. Reflexivity is all very well but a critical and human-orientated stance on art and life should aim at a discerning integration of the gallery and the everyday. Art fails when it gets caught up in itself. We began with “My Masterpiece” and, in more ways than one, shall end with it,

…a perilous sun-shaft

flees through a landscape
and just for a second
fulfils what it strikes

before galleon clouds
storm in behind it
and drop their anchors.

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