Sunday, 13 October 2013

The view from the artist's sitter

Art historians and critics set out to place a work in its historical and cultural context. They thrive on pinning down the influences that formed the mind of the creator, and unpicking the symbolisms and clues lurking on the canvas, within the folds or geometry of the marble, or in the contours formed by architectural space.

Invariably some form of narrative is sought out and imposed upon the work: it means this, the creator was feeling thus, and we should accept it as an example of this genre and a reaction against that movement. The observer, his or her mind awash with such an interpretation and standing in awe of the expert's analysis, now sees through a prism. We have all experienced this at some time or other, however much we resist.

Of course, sort of what I am getting at is the age-old dilemma of how one is to interpret art: objectively, subjectively, through art-historical enquiry, and so on; all incredibly intellectually stimulating, and  unresolvable.

Something I find increasingly engaging, perhaps as I tire of 'expert' analysis, is the view point of the subject. Marble reliefs and buildings cannot speak for themselvesalthough the exquisite nature of Bernini's works can almost fool the observer into thinking otherwisebut human subjects can, if they so wish. I recently rewatched a DVD in my possession in which some of Lucian Freud's past sitters reveal their experiences of sitting for the late painter. Much of their reflections have to do with the manthe enigmahimself. The person of the artist of course cannot and should not be separated from the artistic process, and so such insights are in themselves also valuable. What Freud's sitters also explore is the degree to which they feel able or unable to recognise themselves in the final works. Here the analysis is not art-historical or even technical, but rather one that occurs at the level of the subject's 'relationship' with the canvas. This interplay is complex, for it comprises a multitude of strands, bundled together dynamically: emotions, self-perceptions, sometimes psychological baggage (for instance, where family members or past lovers were the sitters). Interestinglyand ironicallyfrom what I understand Freud had limited interest in his sitters' views on the works he was creating of them.

As much as I adore the enlightened commentary provided by art historians and learned connoisseurs, I am increasingly drawn to wanting to know more about the view from 'the other side', the subject (when indeed it is available). The sitter can let us into that unique inter-relationship between subject and artist, a necessarily intimate, intense and revelatory interaction.

Monday, 18 March 2013

We welcome the pope chosen "from the ends of earth"

"By showing compassion and by choosing"*
We welcome our new Holy Father Pope Francis after a momentous week.

First of all, I want to say how indebted we are to our now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. For me some of the key highlights of his reign would include his emphasis on the importance of placing a sense of dignity at the heart of the liturgy. This, he achieved, against the backdrop of increasing awareness of the hermeneutic of continuity, which became a leitmotif of his pontificate. Both these were themes he explored within the many learned but accessible writings he left us, from before he became Pope and from during his reign. And finally, there was the unequivocal manner in which he spoke out about and apologised for the despicable abuses committed by a rotten minority within the church. It may be that only in the fullness of time will he be given the full credit he deserves for these.

We can have no doubt that our new Holy Father, Francis, will continue to build on these achievements, albeit doing so in his own manner and with his own points of emphasis. Each new papacy inevitably brings ‘change’ of this type; not change that uproots the very foundations of our faith, but rather change that takes the form of renewal or reemphasis. What I find heartening is that already Francis’ warm manner and anecdotal style of communication look as if they could capture the attention of those Catholics who, for a whole host of reasons, may have switched off and, perhaps, even reach out beyond to those hitherto hostile to what the church has to say to contemporary society. That is my hope.

A papal election is a spectacle that draws a global audience of believers, non-believers and the curious. The elevation of a new Pope inescapably leads to an increase in attention of the secular media to the affairs of the church. Indeed, soon after the inauguration of Francis tomorrow, the excitement of the conclave long over, I suspect the media will lose interest. When the cameras turn their gaze elsewhere, and the journalists scatter away from the embrace of Bernini’s colonnades, the church will quietly continue to do her work, among the poor and the needy, the abandoned and lost.

* More details here on Pope Francis' motto.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Bring back the essay!

The essay appeals for its honesty. The essayist does not prejudgehe remains open to where the exploratory journey may take him. He heuristically reaches out, fumbles even, for the truth; stumbling towards making sense of the world and his place in it. In this way the essay mirrors many of our natural thought processes. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is widely regarded as the first master of the art. His writings, which include explorations on all manner of themes from friendship and cannibalism, to vanity and thumbs (yes, thumbs), still mesmerise readers, myself included. Of his approach to this literary form he said:
I determine nothing; I do not comprehend things; I suspend judgement; I examine.
The essay meanders towards an undefined end point, taking the reader along as a co-traveller. Often the that end point offers no more certainty than was possessed at the outset; it is the journey, and what revelations appear along the way, that matters to the writer. This approach distinguishes the essay writer from the polemicist or, what Ed Smith in a recent New Statesman piece terms, the ‘controversialist’:
The essayist reveals his personal experience only when it leads to wider truths. The controversialist relies on shocking personal confessions because he has nothing else to say. The essayist is measured about which aspects of his personality can be made public, which must remain private.
While the rants of the polemicist are polarising and provocative, the essay is gentler and more inclusivecriteria Virginia Woolf, herself brilliantly accomplished in the art, thought essential:
A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out (The Common Reader: First and Second Series).
In this e-age where everyone can find some forum to voice their opinions or claim to be an expert on this topic or that, the honest, ponderous medium of the essay feels ever more refreshing.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Credo in unum Deum

It irks me when I hear parents say that Christmas is for children. It is easy for us to allow it to become just that. But it is for all of us, whatever our age, rank or lifestyle. Yet, even when we acknowledge that, it can be all too easy to forget this truth in its fullest sense, and with all its profound implications, particularly when we are caught up in the frenetic festive whirlwind that is nowadays so much the norm. But we need to stop and allow ourselves time to try to consider it. In the poem Christmas John Betjeman evokes images with which we are all familiar: Christmas-morning bells, festive scents and the crib scene. The poem culminates with the underlying truth of Christmas, so beautifully and simply put:
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Our belief in God, that he became man and dwelt among us, is facing a greater assault than has been witnessed at any other point in the history of our civilisation. The challenge comes principally from the rise of a more vocal, and frequently vitriolic, atheistic movement that rejects religious faith for supposed scientific evidence. Of course, this was preceded in the West by the spread of secularism, which while broadly accommodating of religious expression, does so only on the condition that it is pushed to the margins of the social sphere, or is confined to the private realm. The new atheist movement is merely the logical extension of this.

Medhi Hasan, a left-wing journalist and Moslem, has written a rather good piece in the Huffington Post in which, among responding to certain other positions taken by many prominent atheists, he comments on the evidence vs faith debate. It is worth reading the piece in full as it highlights, in an accessible fashion, some of key arguments proposed by atheists to support their own belief in the non-existence of God. The atheist's non-belief is itself a faith; scientific understanding rests on a great many unknowns, and not only that, is incapable of responding to many of life's most profound questions (see my related post). Anyhow, it is worth quoting a portion of Hasan's article:
Those atheists who harangue us theists for our supposed lack of evidence should consider three things. First, it may be a tired cliché but it is nonetheless correct: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can't prove God but you cant disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic. Second, there are plenty of things that cannot be scientifically tested or proven but that we believe to be true, reasonable, obvious even. Which of these four pretty uncontroversial statements is scientifically testable? 1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil.
The above scratches the surface of some of the debates in which we believers may increasingly have to become engaged in these changing times. Yet we know that for us the starting point is our deep-rooted ability to proclaim this Christmas, and every day of our lives: Credo in unum Deum.

From that all else flows.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

On the art of conversation

What makes a great conversation? This was a question I recently explored in a workshop dedicated to unpicking the art of social discourse in its many and varied forms. Of the ideas contributed one that struck a chord with me was the idea that nourishing conversations are those that, beyond simply facilitating ‘information exchange’, also bring about a change in the participants. It struck me because this second function of conversation is often overlooked.

A satisfying conversation can succeed in recalibrating and shaking up the very ideas we hold of our ‘self’ and the world. Fulfilling exchanges should, so to speak, pull you apart, ruffle you up, make way for the new and so leave you more enlightened than when you started out.

What holds us back from such discourse? Well, first off there are the pressures and pace of daily life. Most exchanges, say with colleagues and family, are primarily functional in nature. They need to be in order to get things done. Even when we do have the opportunity to engage in more meaningful conversation we instinctively do not, so accustomed are we to opting for the superficial or routine. Quite often we shy away from getting ‘too deep’ lest it take us to conversational terrain for which we are ill prepared—keep to the beaten track, we tell ourselves. How often at parties, family gatherings or dreaded networking events do we hear ourselves churning out pre-packed, safe conversation starters, or taking refuge in tried-and-tested anecdotes. At times we bore ourselves, let alone those around us.

Fear holds us back from breaking into more revealing or adventurous territory: by opening up or allowing conversation to flow, unimpeded, towards an unknown destination, we may get ‘out of our depth’, lose something of ourselves, or have our established picture of the world challenged. In short, we are threatened by the prospect that we may be changed. It is suggested that this is borne of a deep-rooted tension concerning our own mortality and the associated inherent need to preserve one’s ‘self’ against outside assaults.

To be a good conversationalist is therefore to be brave. Some conversations lead us to exhilarating zones of self-realisation and mutual understanding, or profoundly reshape how we perceive what is about us; others take us to mundane territory, frustrating dead-ends, or realms beyond the confines of our experience, face-to-face with difficult questions or truths. That is the risk. The more we take it, the more we will live fully and learn about ourselves and the world, and enrich our relationships.

At the end of the workshop we were asked to consider this question—what conversations are we not having with others and ourselves? The real challenge is to make these happen.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Privilege and pregnancy

The events surrounding the recent announcement of Kate Windsor’s pregnancy have all the hallmarks of the hysterical and degenerate media culture that dominates our nation. It is hard to get away entirely from the nauseatingly endless media speculation and cringe-worthy commentary from sycophantic ‘royal’ correspondents.

I wish the couple every happiness, as indeed I would anyone committed to taking on the responsibility and joy of becoming parents, but I wish we as a society were capable of sparing ourselves the soap opera and hyper-analysis, something that would inevitably be more achievable if the Windsors were themselves less willing to court the media so readily when it suits them.

Christmas is a time when that gulf between privilege and poverty can be ever starker. Many of us need not look very far to realise how so many families are struggling to provide for and support their children and relatives, and ensure they have a hopeful future. Writing this week in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny, aptly placed the obsession with this couple’s news into perspective:
Next year, about 750,000 babies will be born in the United Kingdom. At least two hundred and fifty thousand of them will be born into poverty. They will grow up with no idea how they’re going to afford education, or housing, or any of the things even their parents took to some extent for granted. Those children, and their parents, will spend the next 20 years watching another infant grow up in unimaginable privilege and luxury in the pages of their daily papers.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Lessons from granddad

A few months ago my granddad died, two days before his 89th birthday. Several family members and I were fortunate enough to be with him when he passed away in the hospice in which spent his last few weeks.

One of his particularly strong personality traits was a reluctance to feel sorry for himself or have an unnecessarily pessimistic outlook. This aspect of his character was even more apparent during his final 6 months, during which his health, which had previously been very good for a man of his age, deteriorated rapidly due to a viscous form of cancer. The way he faced up to the end of his earthly life with courage, positivity, joviality and stoicism, were for me inspiring. A lesson I will never forget. As I said in the eulogy at his funeral, although he himself would certainly never have put it like this, he strove to live life to the full—and did so until the end.

I had never witnessed death overcome someone at first hand. Indeed, especially in an age where death is treated as such a taboo, few of us ever will. Seeing a loved one in pain and struggling until the end is a horrid spectacle. It was for me a deeply humbling, as well as profoundly grounding, experience. Being with a loved one as he or she enters eternity brings into sharp focus that realisation that life is so fragile, so fleeting; and that time is all too often so wasted or misspent.

The beginning of the end for GCSEs

Michael Gove is a self-consciously eloquent and learned chap, whose verbose appearances on Newsnight Review, before he became an MP, I always used to find extremely engaging. Whether this man is suitable as an education secretary is another matter. Mr Gove has been on a personal mission since his appointment in 2010 to abolish GCSEs, which he robustly dismisses as being not sufficiently demanding, as well as responsible for the purported 'dumming down' witnessed in our educational system.

Today he announced plans to introduce an ‘English Bac’ system to replace GCSEs. The fine details are scant, but one key feature will be the removal of modular courses, in favour of a final single examination, which was a feature of the old O Level system that was legitimately jettisoned some 20-odd years ago by, it is worth remembering, a Tory government. 

I was pretty good at exams. I knew how to prepare myself, scrutinise past papers, and compile detailed revision notes based on the prescriptions of the syllabus. Other students were not so accomplished in this art—yet they were no less academically able. Devouring page upon page of information and regurgitating it within the 2-hour time frame of an examination suits some students, notably the well coached.

Mr Gove's proposals, if they end up being what they appear to be, will take us back to a system that assesses ability according to a narrowly defined formula. It will undo much of the sensible flexibility that has been introduced into the education system in recent years. His bleary-eyed nostalgia for the O Level system and his knee-jerk penchant for overstating the demerits (let us not claim, of course, that none exist) of the current examination system should not be allowed to dictate educational reform.