Monday, December 19, 2011
What else is art good for?
In Western societies, particularly in the post-colonial Anglo nations, we are suffering a terrible crisis of self-understanding. One of the things that struck me the hardest when I finally went back to England as an adult was that the English seemed to have forgotten how to be English. They have forgotten who they are. The older ones seemed to remember but appear to have learned to be ashamed of it. It was a very strange thing and I marked it at the time as a terrible evil. A society that doesn't have a self-understanding, doesn't have a sense of who and what it is, can't be one that will survive for long.
One of the things that art does, particularly painting, is to help define a cultural identity. For obvious reasons this is especially true of Italy. I'm still working my way around Vasari's Lives of Artists and it is clear that the world of painting for three of the most important centuries of art were utterly dominated by Italians (as we call them now).
But if we want to know who we are, how we think of things, how we see the world and what it means to us, painting is obviously the most direct and simple means. I think if the English were to revisit their artistic heritage, there would be great gains in re-establishing a solid national identity.
Make kids look at and understand Constable, Turner and Gainsborough. Familiarise them with Pre-Raphaelites. Once you have introduced them to the painters and their works, they will not be able to avoid also gaining a broader understanding of their own history and culture.
Art tells us how we see ourselves and our neighbours and how we should or could live. It shows us what life can look like from perspectives and times that we might never be able to experience personally. This can have a profound effect on a young mind. It certainly did to me. It immunised me against the cultural malaise and historical amnesia, all the social disaster that was coming throughout the 70s and 80s. It has helped me solidify my own self-understanding and helped to rescue me from that diseased anti-culture that has taken over the world since the 1960s.
It is in great part because of my knowledge of art history and the general cultural knowledge that came with it, that I have been able, in a way, to recapture or rebuild who I really am after fighting my way out of that toxic feminist/hippie fantasy world. And I see no reason that it could not do the same thing for whole cultures, entire societies that have been deracinated and have lost their identities.
When I first looked at the painting above, I thought, "This is me. Or at least it was. The painting seems to exactly depict my childhood and the core of who I was before the calamities of my adolescence and young adulthood made me forget it all."
Art can help you see yourself, the sort of person you are or could be or want to be. And it is true that a lot of my childhood looked exactly like this, right down to the little velvet dress with white lace cuffs. Only mine was brown. My mother made it for me when I was five and I remember the cuffs getting dirty on the London Underground.
Here's a little thing the class can do while I'm working on something else. A kind of art thought experiment for y'all. Look over at some of the art sites I've got on the sidebar. Underpaintings is a really good one, and see if there is a painting that strikes you as deeply. Find one that is a kind of picture of your inner self, your character. See what you come up with.
Sometimes it is a bit surprising and it is possible to learn things about yourself that you never knew by looking at art and measuring your reactions to it.
If you find one that is really good, share it with the rest of the class.