sculpture by the sea

For 2 weeks each year in Sydney the 2km coastal walk from Bondi beach to Tamarama beach is transformed during the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition. This afternoon I checked it out, though so far I haven’t been able to see all the works – a return visit may be in order. I love this exhibition. So too does the rest of Sydney, judging by the crowds even in the late afternoon. Each year at this time the coastal walk becomes jammed with people enjoying the elegant, the quirky and sometimes the downright weird, all with a beautiful seaside view. I love the crowds for this reason: instead of festering in some whitewashed gallery art is out in the public space and people are getting out there and enjoying it. The only drawback of so many people being there at once is the effect on the relationship between the sculptures, the space they’re placed in and the viewer – where I feel sculpture’s power really lies. Finding a quiet time for a viewing has its benefits.

Still, there’s something I love about going with the rest of the world too. It raises a question for me: What is it with art and the public? Why do I have this perception of most people scorning art and yet when something like this is put on it seems half the city – young, old, families and singles – turns up? Is it just that people ‘just like to go to things’, as someone put it to me this week? That is, do they not really care about the art at all, but just go along to whatever’s ‘happening’ this weekend for something to do?

No doubt there are some. But I love the sort of thing I saw today. When a big name gets a show, like a Picasso or Rothko retrospective, I have a tendency, justified or not, to think a lot of people might be drawn just by the name, especially in Australia where the big names are displayed so rarely. But there are no big names in Bondi, yet people are really interested in the works. They take photographs, they laugh, they pick their favourites. They aren’t generally interested in the way we’re told interest in art is supposed to manifest itself: dispassionately deconstructing everything to find the deeper ‘meaning’ in the work. Sadly there is still a strong sense for people that that’s exactly the way art has to be appreciated and the completely obtuse and indecipherable works that follow this artistic philosophy themselves only serve to continue enforcing this sense by alienating the very people they’re supposed to be communicating with. The great legacy of modern art has been to drive a wedge in people’s thinking between their life and visual creativity. But after people have stood mutely and impassively in front of them for a few moments (myself included) they move on to the stuff that’s actually cool and connects with them and their experience in some way, and often quite simply. It’s obvious in the comparison between works which always have a crowd of snap happy and grinning people around them (again myself included) and those which are left sadly alone. The works people love explore and re-imagine the beauty of this world or the human experience of living itself. The works I’ve snapped here were some of my favourites which I felt did just that.

The incessantly elitist and deconstructing nature of so much modern and post modern art (and talk about it) in the west has cultural and philosophical roots reaching back a couple of centuries , but the creative impulse has spanned human existence across cultures and centuries and has elsewhere always been much more closely tied to the lived experience of a culture’s people and their relationship with the wider world around them. I’ve said this before here.  ‘Art’ wasn’t the intellectual domain of a specific subculture who were in the ‘know’. You didn’t need an ‘art appreciation course’ (spare me) to engage with it. It reflected and still reflects life. In future posts I’d like to explore further how contemporary art is trying to reflect and speak to how we in the west tend to view the world and our lives, for I think there’s much to be said. But I wouldn’t hold your breath if I was you.

For now though, let me say that I think there is a real desire in people’s hearts for beauty and truth in the world, and for people to engage with and express it through acts of creativity. And there is a joy when it’s done.

What do you think? Do people love good art or am I mistaken? Do you enjoy art, and if so, what do you love about it? 

call me bernard marx

Insanity, on the one hand; lunacy on the other.

Are these humanity’s only options? The only red and blue pill actually on offer?

That’s the bleak proposal of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s dark prediction from the early 1930’s of a future many years hence, which I read only a few days ago.

Dark? Really? As a general rule everyone in Huxley’s vision of the world centuries from now is quite happy. Disease, suffering, war, disappointment, grief and anger are virtually unheard of. Free, casual and pretty much daily sex is everyone’s lot; free drugs without harmful side effects, offering a sense of well-being and a blissful escape from any negative emotions, are handed out by the government (‘Christianity and alcohol without the side effects’); although death is still a reality, no one ages; everyone who could possibly care is beautiful; and everyone’s job is specifically tailored to suit them (or rather they’re specifically tailored to suit their job) so that it’s always completely satisfying. What could be wrong with that?

So many of us feel horrified by recent footage of the attempts by oppressive dictators in North Africa and the Middle East to grip onto power by ruthlessly crushing and beating down their own people. But what if the people of the world were subjugated, not unwillingly but willingly? What if it’s what people wanted? What if people were oppressed, not from without, but from within?

What if that were the cost of a perfect world? Would it even be a cost?

I admit that I picked up this book thinking there wouldn’t be much in it relevant for me. Another modernist warning against fascism at a period of history when that was a real threat. But now…now we live in free society. Personal autonomy is up and everyone’s got a suspicious eye on the governments…just in case. Regardless of how far into the future Huxley’s world is from our own it’s hard to imagine where we are now that we’d ever get there. We had the 60’s (or something) and went the other way.

I deplored the aforementioned depiction of humanity’s lot as a choice between Insanity and Lunacy – that modernist howling, maniacal laugh of despair to the cold night of the fragmented, shattered world of that failed philosophy. However it seems even Huxley repented of that sentiment in future years.

And yet I was surprised at the ways Brave New World made me think. I can’t say for sure whether the book was written before fascism or communism as philosophies came into existence, however the Messiah of Huxley’s world isn’t Hitler or Lenin but Henry Ford. It is economic convenience and stability that lies at the foundation of Huxley’s world – the happiness of all is the highest goal. No question our fragmented post modern western society with its myriad perspectives and pathways looks very different to the smooth, clean homogeneity of Brave New World. But its commitment to delivering instant gratification of our every whim through buying another commercialised product (on which our social stability is based) – its commitment, in other words, to ease and happiness –  looks unnervingly similar.

Disconcerting was how acutely I connected with one of the main characters in the book, Bernard Marx. A thin, odd little man for his caste who doesn’t ever feel that he fits in his society, who can never feel a part of the happiness of all the beautiful people around him and who yearns for something he can’t name. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I see my society as Marx sees his, nor everyone around me as superficial slaves and I somehow wiser and ‘deeper’ as a person. And yet I somehow have never felt quite at home in my now. In the rush to progress, the embracing of efficiency and the realisation of pragmatic goals – of being ‘useful’ – today, I confess to a yearning for a beauty, a quiet, a creativity… a slowness that I often hear scoffed at. But what was disconcerting was the degree to which I continued to identify with Marx as he turns from potential hero of love and beauty to someone who will eagerly embrace the salacious world he once pushed against if only it will finally hand to him what it had always withheld from him – whose desire for love and passion is exposed as having been mere envy of those around him. Cuts a little too close to the bone. But then, who wants to resist a life of ease, of playfulness and everything we ever wanted at our fingertips? What could be wrong with that?

What would eradicating pain and grief and delivering continuous happiness be worth?

rembrandt’s soul.

My appreciation for Rembrandt is quite new and at this stage pretty uninformed. I’ve seen some reproductions of his work, and I can see in much of his work the touch of a master. There’s something truly beautiful and touching about this late self portrait. Even profound. Rembrandt painted an astonishing number of self portraits over his life, more than any other apparently, but, although his motivation is debated, it doesn’t seem that it was narcissism. See, as he grows older the self portraits develop beyond just depicting his external features to ‘the most penetrating self-analysis and self-contemplation…’ At least that’s what someone said here. And I see it. In his later work (which is the stuff I love most) Rembrandt has this amazing technique of painting the ethereal quality of light, and more than other masters of painting, I just feel he captures so much of the frail, tender humanness…of his own humanity, his inner self.

When I was studying contemporary art at uni I began to become interested in thinking about depicting the soul…and was heading in that direction when my degree ended and the daily grind dragged me away from it all…or at least, I let it drag me away. See, most depictions of the human figure in post modern art are all about the fragmentation of the self, they are portrayals of brokenness. Picasso was, I think, the first to really capture the sense of modern existential despair, but he wasn’t the last.  Feeling isolated from yourself and others and society seems to be a fairly common experience. It certainly was mine through that time, and coming to grasp more deeply the promise in the Bible of a process of growing towards wholeness and restoration by trusting in Jesus Christ, I decided to pursue the artistic venture of depicting the wholeness of the human soul, united with and not divorced from the body, to convey what is profound and deeply valuable about human beings made in God’s image.

Anyway, I say all that mainly to get to the point that, looking at the searching self portraits and figures of Rembrandt – his own worldview steeped in that of the Bible – I think he beat me to it, and did it more beautifully and poignantly than I ever could. No need for tricks or weird depictions of the person. Just a richness and depth and sensitivity to the whole person. And I don’t mean to imply that that necessarily means an always cheery, shallowly sunny view of the world. Rembrandt had a hard life and his paintings do tend to portray him as, in the words of a friend of mine ‘a dour bugger’. Nor am I a stranger to the danger of an introvert becoming overly inward looking and navel gazing – it’s my natural tendency and I’ve experienced first hand the horror of letting it take hold. I always need to be intentional about getting out and into the world around me (and I think the extrovert carries in themselves the equal and opposite danger). But I love the rich subtlety of his humanity, as opposed to the cynical despair of the failed modernist dream in Picasso’s shattered visages, or post modernity’s ever skeptical deconstruction of the self without any real hope of a substance beyond the surface.

 We’re complex. We don’t make sense. There’s something profound and rich and beautiful and messy and painful and joyful and just deeply, deeply meaningful about being human.

And that’s all I wanted to say. Thanks for listening.