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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a good friday to you

By George Herbert1593–1633

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
               Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
               From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
               If I lack’d any thing.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
               Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
               I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
               “Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
               Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
               “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
               So I did sit and eat.
How incredible that love should shine so brightly on so dark a day. When we think of love it’s usually so sunny and carefree – love sweeps us up and chases the clouds away, makes it all better etc. But real love has a cost, and had a cost, which I still cannot fathom.
This poem by George Herbert doesn’t dwell on the events of that dark day, but on the outcome. How is that so many of us take for granted the idea that if God does in fact live up in heaven we should be able to assume that we can have access to him and his help and love, despite never acknowledging his presence except when it suits us. we wouldn’t treat another like this, and wouldn’t expect a warm reception if we did. But we do with God, if we don’t completely reject him altogether.
And here the wonder-full love of God, that Jesus should take the blame. That by placing my trust in him I could come in to God’s house and eat with him… many say this demeans us. The fact that someone so incredible should pour such incredible, costly love onto me begs to differ.
There’s much more I could say about this delightful poem, perhaps another time. Today I want to simply remember such love that calls me, yes even me, to come in and eat, to turn away from my broken past and know him.

I need not deny my guilt and shame to try to live without it… I take it to him, and he has done away with it.

What about you? Does Good Friday mean anything to you?

poetry, art, love

No, it’s true I haven’t written every week on art I’ve seen, nor every fortnight on books I’ve read, nor at all on anything else. We labour, we strive, we kick against the relentless onslaught of time and life and brains empty of ideas. And they kick back. Still we don’t give up.

I have in the past attempted to learn how to write poetry. I even bought a book on the subject, by the wonderful Stephen Fry called The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within.

And what I got through is great, but I never got very far. Writing never seemed like a relaxing pastime but rather like work – not in a  bad way, there’s work that’s enjoyable – but neither in a relaxing way, especially when before you can write a poem you need to go through all these very great and very useful but not at all exciting exercises. I wanted write great poems, not learn how to write them. That’s my great problem with all my artistic endeavours – impatience.

What occurred to me the other day, however, is what a tool I’ve been about all this. You may have thought, dear reader, that if I was so interested in learning  to write poetry I must be a lover of reading poetry. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that, because it makes sense. After all, why would someone want to write poetry if they didn’t enjoy reading great poets? The answer, dear reader, is because they’re a tool.

When I was (not very) younger I scorned poetry even though I loved art, to the surprise of some who knew me. Over time I had softened to realise that I had a particular picture of poetry in mind, a caricature  of twee sentimentality and head-in-the-clouds denial of reality that simply isn’t fair to what good poetry actually is. However despite occasionally stumbling on the odd poem I enjoyed such as this one with which I introduced this blog to the world, I’ve never really been moved to go out and get into some of the well-known poets and see what they have to contribute.

I think it was watching Midnight in Paris a week or so ago that stirred again the fire of this love in me. The film itself was OK but it stoked the embers of my desire for that period (imperfect s it was, of course) and these great writers/painters (I also have a new quest to read Hemmingway. A must). At any rate something clicked a couple of days ago and I went and bought this big compendium of one particular critic’s picks of the best poems in the English language, from a wide range of authors. And though I’ve only read a couple, smokes I’ve been moved.

And there is nothing that could move me to want to learn to use language in this way more than reading the beauty of their words. It surely is the same with art too. It’s when I get to galleries and see what’s possible and what visions people have had and how they sought to bring them to fruition that I’m most moved and long most fervently to engage in this long dormant side of myself again. And yet things get busy and I get lazy on Saturdays and I haven’t gone for so long. And when that happens and I get taken up with the every dayness of life it becomes so hard to motivate myself to create, though I don’t understand why I find it so hard because I know I love it deep down. But I remove it from my life. I assume that I must do it first and then it can be a part of me and I can give myself to love it. I always said, I always knew what many don’t realise about me – that it’s not enough for me to make art (or write poetry, I suppose) as a hobby. It must be my life or nothing. I must immerse myself in it, it must be my passion or else I can’t do it. I can’t dabble on the side. Therefore, having chosen a different path for myself (and without regret) I haven’t known how to keep this in my life. It has felt like pushing a rock up a hill which constantly rolls out of my hands and back down to the valley whenever I get distracted with the great Everything Else. Yet, though it often does take a long time for the creaky cogs of my dotty brain to turn over what should be pretty simple realisations, I now know the way forward. I must immerse myself in it yes, not first as a doer but as a lover.  Love precedes action. And I’ll reclaim my love.

I’ve discovered John Donne, and I’m besotted. I look forward to sharing him with you.

a fave poem

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins