Archive for the 'art' Category

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

Eheu fugaces

July 13, 2016

Nobody can really prepare you for retirement: the day when, after everyone has said very kind and appreciative things about you, and remembered the high-points and achievements of your career, and wished you well, you put your stuff in the car and set off home for the last time, knowing that you will never make that journey again with the same purpose. All those years are over; your job and classroom now belong to someone else…

Many sighs of relief; the clouds of stress and pressure and expectation lift. You celebrate, relish the air of freedom; September arrives and you can set off on holiday rather than return to the daily grind. But, you now need a new purpose and motivation in your life.

I have slowed down a good deal over the last few years. I’m older, and I don’t need to rush to fit everything in; no-one is breathing down my neck. I have certainly been able to read rather more than I used to, and have very much enjoyed writing this blog, which arose partly from my wish to continue sharing my enjoyment of reading, and partly because I realised that I could be a writer, on a small scale. I have been able to go off and study and watch Shakespeare rather than teach it; I was never able to go on the course before, because it runs the week before Whitsun half-term.

I’ve always enjoyed languages. My first degree was actually joint honours, French and English Literature, and I’ve been keeping up with my French through reading newspapers, and also novels and some history in French. I’ve been able to join a German class and tried to improve my German to a stage where I can now hold a reasonable conversation. In the last three years I have also taken up Spanish, a new challenge which is keeping my brain alive. And I’ve been able to go back to yoga, which I enjoyed very much when a lot younger. It’s different now, being rather more about sustaining flexibility and suppleness of limbs, which needs rather more attention as I’ve grown older.

My main pleasure has been travelling. When a student I travelled a good deal in Europe and a little in North Africa, and I always intended to do more of this when I had the freedom. I go off walking in the Luxembourg Ardennes every spring. I’ve spent several trips walking around and exploring the various battlefields of the Great War, a project that arose from many years of teaching the literature of that period to students. These trips have been very informative and very moving. I’ve achieved a lifetime’s ambition and visited the various places in Germany associated with JS Bach. And I have lots more projects in the pipeline. Then there are the trips and holidays that Cheryl and I take together, to art galleries, museums and especially to the seaside…

I have grown to love gardening, too. I’m not the head gardener: I just do the heavy work, the weeding and the fruit harvesting. It’s incredibly relaxing (well, apart from the digging) and peaceful. It’s something I never understood when I was younger – I always saw it as incredibly boring. And now I love it.

It’s taken quite a few years to realise that I can do what I like when I like, and in some ways this freedom feels like a return to the hippy days of my youth. And yet, there often feels to be something lacking… it’s taken a long time to realise and understand this major change, which is that nothing matters any more. I don’t have a career, and students who depend on my hard work. Our children are grown and have lives of their own. In the end, nobody cares what I do, and whilst that’s clearly liberating in one way, it’s also rather alarming in another: every day I must create and sustain a purpose and meaning to the rest of my existence. This is my task and mine alone, and nobody can really explain this to you, it just happens, and it’s a shock.

Inarticulate responses

July 11, 2016

Reading has been such an integral part of my life – of me – for so long that sometimes it gets in the way of other things. Following those words on a page, instantly processed by my brain, reflected on, agreed or disagreed with, moderated, absorbed or rejected, is second nature. And I find this presents me with serious challenges when faced with other similar and yet very different stimuli.

I’ll try and be clearer. Along with reading I also enjoy listening to music, mainly classical, but some jazz. The input to my brain, my consciousness, my mind, is very different – no words! – and I’m far less sure what goes on, and what to do with it. Sounds don’t operate like words, obviously, don’t produce the same sort of response in my brain, in me; my response is mostly emotional – I think. But then my response to what I’m reading can also be emotional, and yet it’s not the same…

I enjoy art – huge generalisation there! – some kinds of art, painting from the time of Turner onwards, some sculpture, some strange conceptual art. Joseph Beuys fits in there somewhere. And I find responding to pictures and sculptures even more challenging. I can happily sit or stand and stare for ages; sometimes I have an intellectual response, which is easier and means I can talk about what I’m seeing; sometimes it’s a purely emotional response, and sometimes, quite honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m mesmerised or entranced by what I’m looking at; I think I like it, but couldn’t really begin to tell you why… I realise that I don’t really have enough of the tools, or the necessary language (English teacher speaking here!) to explain my response.

And then I find myself wondering: is that OK? Is it necessarily like this, or is it because something was lacking in my earlier education? I don’t really think it matters that much, and yet, as I feel quite articulate in my specialist field of literature, I’d really like to be able to be like that, too, in my response to other areas of the arts.

My musical education at school was pretty non-existent; my voice broke early and I was bribed not to sing; I never had the opportunity to learn an instrument; most musical notation and terminology verges on the incomprehensible. And yet listening to the music of Bach has brought me as close to heaven as I’ll probably get. I can hear the complexity – that some call mathematical – and I can appreciate the genius; I can feel a man drawn to God. The late Beethoven String Quartets I find eerie, haunting even, and compelling, but that’s about all I can manage to articulate.

I never really had any education in art, either, apart from some very interesting and helpful stuff on architectural history at one point. My practical attempts at art of any kind were futile. Later in life, I have come to enjoy photography, which I find satisfying, and I have accepted this is as far as I’ll get.

If any artist speaks to me, it’s Turner, who to me is an impressionist before his time, whether in his huge canvases – particularly of Italy – or in his smaller watercolours and sketches; he does marvellous things with light, and can suggest a whole through the merest stroke of a pencil or dab of a paintbrush. But again, I can’t really get further than that in articulating what is is that affects me, moves me deeply, entrances me.

When I think more deeply, I realise that my responses to music and painting resemble my responses to poetry, when out of the words carefully chosen come images, words far less concrete than those I consume so voraciously when I read. But then it comes to me as I reach the end of this piece: the real problem is the words, which get in the way.

Farewell, Umberto

February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco was the sort of person who made me feel proud to be a human being, if you can understand what I mean. Like all of us, he had a brain, and powers of reason. And unlike many humans, he used them.

If people know who he was, they probably immediately think, oh yes: The Name of the Rose. It is a lovely novel, one of may all-time favourites, and I say lovely advisedly, for it is so many things: a wonderful detective story which pays tribute to another of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes, a disquisition on mediaeval history, theology, the religious life, human nature – in short, a work which allows Eco the mediaevalist to shine at his best. And Baudolino, his other mediaeval novel which explores the search for Prester John, does the same. His other novels are less impressive, though I have intentions of returning to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I remember as quite autobiographical.

Eco described himself as a philosopher who wrote novels at the weekends. I’ve only dipped into his other work. Some of it, especially more abstruse stuff on semiotics and meaning, has given me a headache and left me none the wiser: I haven’t the tools to access it. Other writings, on languages and translation, I have found fascinating and thought-provoking. And his writings about art, culture and literature, in such books as On Beauty, On Ugliness, The Infinity of Lists and especially The Book of Legendary Lands are works of beauty and great erudition.

So, he was a man of learning, a man who valued learning and knowledge for its own sake, who revelled in it and in sharing it with others. For me, this is one of the greatest things a person can aspire to. When I learned yesterday of the passing of Harper Lee, I was saddened. Opening the paper this morning, I was without words for a long time.

The Art Museum

December 11, 2015

61IMIf4BSBL._AA160_I’ve been thinking about my preferences in art as I’ve leafed through the pages of this enormous book again. I bought it a couple of years ago as I realised that, being retired, I had more time to devote to exhibitions and galleries that I previously had. It is as near as you can get to a single volume guide to the world’s art and its history, although it has vaarious flaws, which I’ll get on to eventually…

For some reason, I’ve come to enjoy ancient Egyptian art, particularly statues and sculptures, and a recent visit to the Neues Museum in Berlin was wonderful, although I did come away with the feeling that the only reason the Germans hadn’t brought the pyramids back was that they were probably a bit too big… I suspect my interest dates from seeing the first Tutankamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972.

Over the years I’ve come to enjoy the impressionists a great deal, and have fallen in love with German romantics like Caspar David Friedrich, but my greatest pleasure at the moment comes from Turner‘s paintings, watercolours and sketches. But then there are also unexpected, one-off discoveries, like the astonishing Otto Dix series Der Krieg, based on his experiences of the First World War. My tastes are very catholic, as you can see. And modern printing technology allows books of reproductions of very high quality.

As I thought about what I liked, what gave me pleasure or spoke to my condition, I also wondered about what I didn’t like, or, more accurately, felt I couldn’t access or understand. Some art I find so culturally distant from what I have grown up with that it is hard to approach or understand – the art of Africa, India, South East Asia or the Pacific, for instance; I find European and Middle Eastern art much easier on the eye and the brain. In a slightly different way, I have also felt that, upon reflection, time is also important: I find a lot of religious art, particularly paintings (sculpture and architecture less so) too austere and remote, and most portraiture from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leaves me totally cold and uninterested. This, I think, is because it strove to be representative, and, in a post-photography age, it just doesn’t work for me at all.

Everything is in this book, in small doses sometimes, and overdone at others. My first gripe is that, when I’m looking at pictures, I’d like to know where I can go and see the original: that information is clearly given, but in an appendix at the back of the book, and this book is so large that quickly flicking to the back just isn’t an option. By the time I got to the end of thebook, I felt that there was an undue emphasis on recent – late twentieth century – art and sculpture, whereas earlier eras were a bit skimmed over. Or is it just that there is so much more art being created now, a greater variety and more experimentation? How subjective is the selection made by the editors? Picures and scupltures are reproduced in high quality, and there is a very informative glossary, annotation and location of every work ‘exhibited’ in the book. It will continue to be a useful companion in the future, though I suspect it won’t stop me acquiring other, more detailed collections of particular artists’ works.

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