Archive for July, 2010

Waiting for the Barbarians

July 28, 2010

French number – photograph by Liz Mathews

I overheard some professional philistine on the radio in a shop, demanding what good it ever did anyone to learn French, especially now you can book your hotel room over the internet. (This somewhat ignores the reality of actual arrival in a Parisian hotel, but that is another story.)  The opinion was expressed with enormous self-satisfaction at the possessor’s plain-spoken insular common sense.  But surely even someone (like me) who unfortunately lacks fluent French themselves can comprehend the mind-expanding possibilities of knowing another language, having access to another culture’s riches?  Who could want to collaborate in depriving children of the opportunity – at least – to learn so much for so little?  Only someone who is against knowledge itself, who prefers the safety of ignorance for the future, the cutting of communication between as many cultures as possible, so that we can all sink self-satisfied back into our mire.  Nostalgie de la Boue, indeed.

Everyone is outraged when hospitals are run by managers who only care about profits, but what about schools where nothing is taught except what is needed for animal existence?  How can anyone who has devoted their life to learning bear to be told that it is valueless?  What will happen if we don’t teach anything but money-related pseudo-subjects?  The only possible result will be an increased polarisation between the priviliged (and eccentric) few who independently maintain their private culture, and the rest who only have access to a bogus celebrity culture.  

Now that there’s an opportunity for philistine ideology to be expressed with such pleasure, and vehemence, the old claims re-emerge that the arts are elitist, not for the masses. If art – and education, too – can be presented as merely a status symbol for the rich, then its funding by the government may seem inappropriate, its loss unimportant. This fear of intellectualism has always been a factor of British life, and the perceived divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘workers’ has been very useful in preventing any common cause.  It goes with the fears of women, homosexuals, foreigners, vegetarians, artists, etc, etc, which are still major factors in maintaining this unequal society.  As it’s a matter of education, it is self-replicating; the argument is circular, the prophecy self-fulfilling.  

Just as a false dichotomy can be set up between affording health or the arts, false competition can be set up between different arts organisations, between departments in universities, or different disciplines.  While these potential allies argue, the fabric around is dismantled.  I have been amazed to read academics bickering in print about the merits of teaching the humanities at all, or British academics taking issue with Americans for lamenting the loss of departments in our universities (not their business – or the business of the entire scholarly community?), or arts organisations unable to justify their existence except in terms of money.  This is the tactic of ‘divide and rule’ indeed.  

The Greeks who protest in the streets about cuts to the funding of their cultural life, among other areas of society, call the perpetrators ‘Barbarians’; an insult with a long history, beginning with the lack of a language in which to understand each other.  In this modern context, I don’t think the concept is over-emotional, I think it is a recognition that there are people who actually like the idea of destroying culture. We have barbarians here too, who will be only too delighted to bring back the dark ages, if we let them.

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What so wild as words are?

July 16, 2010

Light, air, cloud – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘…it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one is separately too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means…. The meaning is just on the far side of language.’

On not knowing Greek, Virginia Woolf, (The Common Reader)

This description of reading – the rapid flight of mind, the dangerous leap through the air – seems to me the perfect definition of why great poetry works as it does, for the enthusiast. It’s also an evocation of what it describes; the exhilaration of that unsupported leap of faith, beyond meaning, to the place where the words in their companies gather together to give expression to the unsayable. This surrender to instinctive reading, far from being anathema to the writer, is a necessity for her as a poetry reader. It is the acknowledgement that in such writing there is an element beyond, something that can’t be analysed and given an academic gloss; a mystery that can be recognised but not explained.

The danger, of course, is that the leap may fail, that we will fall flat – and sometimes we do fall in flames. But it’s a risk worth taking; one that Woolf frequently asks of her readers. Even when a writer seems to have completely failed to write without individual words, to blast them into their companies, the attempt is exciting. Not even Shakespeare (nor Woolf) could always achieve it, but the wish to write that undecantable language is always evident, an ambition that demands much from the reader, but rewards us with flight, sometimes.

(At its simplest, it’s a willingness to glide which can work so well for the contemporary audience of Shakespeare. The unfamiliarity of some parts of the language – among passages which are known by heart to many – is rarely a problem in performance; the staging carries the audience beyond merely getting the gist of the sense, to the deeper apprehension of that instinctive understanding. This is a way to read the dramatic lyric, too, as the mind soars over the words.)

For writers who are not necessarily hoping to write ‘the highest poetry’, but do seek to use words sometimes in some of the ways Woolf describes, there is a paradox. So much can be learned from reading like this, from thinking deeply about the ways of language and the techniques of working with it. But then, there is that other, mysterious element; the thing that can’t be learnt at writing school, can’t be defined, coerced, bought, sold or even named – only hoped-for, awaited, recognised.

(‘What so wild as words are?’ Robert Browning, A Woman’s Last Word.)

Trahison des Clercs

July 9, 2010


Traitors’ Gate – photograph by Liz Mathews

The Treason of the Clerks is one of those book titles (by J. Benda, 1927) that’s become a lasting phrase because it expresses the exact nature of a betrayal; the intentional betrayal of culture by those intellectuals who are supposed to support it. This kind of treason is taking place now, too, though sometimes it seems not so much a result of betraying culture as of being indifferent to it. Some of the many individuals and organisations who are supposed to champion the importance of the arts appear somewhat puzzled as to why it should matter, other than financially. And if the call to arms is still couched in the jargon of such arts administrators and their desperate capitalism, it’s doomed, irrelevant.

Making Value, a recent ‘qualitative research survey’ commissioned by the Crafts Council, seeks to explain that makers ‘contribute to economic growth, within and beyond the cultural and creative industries…[through apparently unexpected means such as]… product innovations featuring strong person-centred orientation…. Enhanced narrative characterisation in film and television and digital environments’. (Imagine!) Among many other important revelations, the study discovers that makers have a ‘Passion for materials and the material world’ and ‘Evidence a deep sense of integrity in relation to their creative identity’, together with an ‘Understanding of how people relate to objects, both emotionally and in a functional sense…’.

This is not news, presumably, even to the Crafts Council, who seem dimly aware that there is some sort of ‘social contribution’ made by artist-makers – those strange creatures of artistic integrity, passion, and even (weird, this), belief in ‘making a contribution through the application of their practice beyond making for exhibition or sale’. But is an industry-speak survey really the best way the CC can think of to emphasise the crucial importance of a living culture? Would the money not have been better spent on commissioning some artwork from actual artists, who could express their own truths for themselves?

Not in the logic of those who don’t expect anyone to want or understand a commodity that they’re condemned to sell without wanting or understanding it themselves. No, the best way is to spend a lot of money trying to persuade other, impressionable people to buy – not art, obviously, but something saleable like ‘uniquely valuable consultancy services’ or ‘entrepreneurial strategies’. Perhaps it’s just the ethos of a parasitical industry, perhaps it’s treason.

Interesting Times

July 3, 2010


Light in the valley – photograph by Liz Mathews

Art flourishes in difficult circumstances; in bad times people turn to it. This rather obvious statement is convenient for funding bodies, who can be assured that artists, like other vocational workers, need never be paid properly because they will carry on anyway, starving in their proverbial garrets. Whatever else is cut, there’s a vague belief that the arts won’t go away, entirely, just as learning will be maintained by independent scholars if the humanities vanish from our universities. This paradox means that the arts will always fare badly in the unseemly struggle for cash, and that any expression of optimism about their survival seems like an acceptance that, in times like these, the arts are a long way down the list.

A more sinister unspoken desire comes from those who’d like the arts to go away entirely, who feel that hard times are the perfect excuse for a philistine field-day. It’s easy to see why the powerful-but-inept might be frightened of the arts. It’s also easy to see why the false dichotomy is set up between (for example) health and arts funding, in order to represent the arts as non-essentials that must be sacrificed now. Rather like measuring the worth of humanities departments by monetary values which may be relevant to (some of) the sciences but can’t be applied to other fields, so to justify the arts in merely monetary terms leaves out some fundamental element. What is immeasurably important can’t be quantified – another convenient truism.

So, we’re all in an uproar. Following the university financial disaster, the arts will be next to go; execution has merely been postponed by the Arts Council’s use of the reserve fund. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth among the great and the good, even, about the lack of publishing contracts, the dearth of commissions. Even in my own (less elevated) circle, there is lamentation about the future of culture. All the old arguments are rehearsed, then it’s objected that everyone knows that already, then it’s vehemently upheld that it must still be said, again, often.

Well then: art has always been a means of protest and resistance, an expression of forbidden identities (national or individual), a measure of civilized existence in continuity. It provides spiritual sustenance in extreme circumstances, courage to endure loss, consolation and healing, even hope. It tells truths which cannot be expressed in other ways, opens doors to places within which are otherwise inaccessible, interprets our world and creates imaginary worlds beyond, helps us travel towards understanding.

Since none of these matters can be measured or given a monetary value, it’s easy to dismiss them with a cheery assurance that only when people are financially comfortable will they be interested in ‘the arts’ (as one of many possible ‘leisure pursuits’). But the enormous popularity of the cinema during the Depression of the 1930’s is often explained as a distraction from hardship, a necessary escapism. And that cinema (to say nothing of the other arts) also expressed discontent, criticism, a wish for change. This, of course, is the role of art which is so feared by all governments. Totalitarian regimes of all political colours always censor the arts, in fear of what they may express, yet also attempt to use them, because of their enormous power of communication. The puppet theatre which defied the Nazi occupation in Poland, or the music which gave solace to people in the extermination camps, are both human proofs that such regimes are right to be afraid.

For myself, I think accursed Trident should be a lot further down the funding list than money for the arts. But nevertheless, I do feel a certain optimism about our cultural survival, but not optimism as any form of acceptance or collaboration. It does seem that the arts and humanities are under attack specifically, not merely as part of a package of inevitable/neccessary/etc cuts. But – just as the open country that is in the planned route of a motorway is suddenly revealed, not as a quiet valley belonging to nobody much, but a fiercely beloved landscape, a place of beauty deeply valued by a vociferous people who will fight body to bulldozer to protect it – so our cultural life, when it’s really threatened, is recognised anew as precious and vital. Interesting times.