on why you’re an art lover

You like art. You do. You like poetry as well.

I’ve known hundreds of people who claim not to like art. I’ve met even more who say they hate poetry (I was one of them for years). But I’ve never met anyone who, after often complaining about contemporary art and claiming that it’s pointless and weird, has never been faced with a particular piece (never contemporary) that has illumined some facet of life, that has with beauty and truth reflected something, often something quite ordinary of the world with particular insight, that’s caused them to say – ‘I like this. This is art.’

I am convinced and becoming more so that people like art and poetry and more, want to like art and poetry, and that art and poetry, like song, have tremendous power to resonate deeply with people and cause them to slow down and reflect and contemplate the world and themselves. Yet faced with an arts culture that has become disconnected from the realities of everyday life and so disconnected from most people who don’t find themselves in a somewhat fringe subculture, art has become to most people the weird and irrelevant pastime of society’s oddballs and poetry is no more than a rather pathetic and soft relic of a thankfully bygone era. Thankfully this never happened with music (although something must’ve gone wrong to bring us to the point where we have One Direction). Music remains a fundamental part of any culture, and of deep importance to anyone I’ve ever met. But once art and poetry were no different.

A number of things have caused me to be thinking about this stuff and move in this direction, and you should read the posts by Glen on this: Art on Fire: a Naples Tantrum and Definitely not for Burning…

See art is sick. It’s not dead, but the West is killing it. And I don’t mean all the haters are killing it – the ‘Art World’ is. What we think of as Art is not what art has been for centuries and across cultures. I’m realising the same is true of poetry.

Before the Age of Reason there was no separate discipline called ‘Art’. There were no movements, individual styles, progressive ideas; no ‘geniuses’, self-expression or avant-garde. Across ancient and medieval societies art was inscribed on the daily and ritual life of the people, was often religious and sought to connect the ordinary life of people with what they saw as the spiritual reality of their world. I have to say as a Christian I’m pretty wary of how this has often been done, even in the history of the Church, where the created object becomes the object of worship rather than the living God, or God is recast and denigrated in the image of the artist. But I don’t think idolatry must necessarily be the outcome of visual art. I’m interested in thinking that question through more.

The same, it seems, is true of poetry. I didn’t realise that poetry had been a major element of the Church’s life and worship for most of the past 2,000 years. I did know, however, that much of the Old Testament is written in poetry and have had the joy recently of being able to sink my teeth into it (check out Robert Alter’s translations). Poetry causes us to think deeply. Its rhythmic cadence and structural play, acheived through differing cultural conventions, give language a power that for that ancient society enabled them to slow down, contemplate and understand the profound spirituality that pervaded their world and ours – that the creation in which they lived and were a part, with its ordered movements and cycles,  that every moment of their lives rooted in the dust and the salt air and turning of the seasons was and is in the hands of a soveriegn and providential God. In an age gorged on instant gratification and an insatiable lust for faster and faster download speed this is a great need.

Sadly most of us have had our view of poetry shaped by those fluffy, willowy Romantics with their clouds for brains into something of a caricature. I mean, why would I do something productive when I could sit under a tree and wax lyrical about how I feel about a flower? Because it’s stupid.

Seems it was the ascendancy of Rationalism that spelled the doom of poetry as it had existed for centuries across cultures. Faced with the sterilisation of a world viewed only through the lens of reason yet no longer believing in a spiritual dimension the Romantics of the 19th century looked to the arts for something ‘more’ (this is what happened to art as well). But here art and poetry became ends in themselves and concerned with something higher than the everyday world which was seen as purely rational. Here began the ‘high arts’, now the pastimes of the bougeious elite who could afford to sit around feeling ‘arty’ rather than disciplines, which like music was and has remained,were inextricably intertwined with everyday life which was itself closely connected with spirituality.

In a fragmented and dislocated society which has lost any notion of a central axis, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to rediscover.

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3 thoughts on “on why you’re an art lover

  1. No need to state I agree! Poetry was equally, as you say, at the epicentre of life in the great cultures of antiquity: the need to ‘describe’, tell stories and refine them into something ‘poetic’ goes way back. Homer, for example – there were professional ‘rhapsodes’ who would recite The Iliad and The Odyssey in their entirety to rapt audiences. It was a social/communal thing. (Not sure I wouldn’t rather watch The Bourne Supremacy, but then I’ve been debased by Damien Hirst et al.)
    Nice post, Ryan – and thanks so much for the reference. Appreciate it.

    • Thank you Glen, and my pleasure. As for Homer – I just recently downloaded Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad onto my Kindle. Haven’t got to it yet though.

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