First Time Seeing
OUR RAPIDLY CHANGING SOCIETY: REFLECTIONS IN MODERN ARTS
All of life is changing - very rapidly – and the arts are a reflection of that change. The other day, I saw a friend reading David Copperfield. I asked her if I could borrow her book for a few minutes. I leafed through the pages, and my eye kept focusing on words and phrases like: ‘He was a moral man’, ‘virtuous’, ‘an exemplary character’. Can you imagine a novelist today describing the hero as moral or virtuous.
And the younger generations are approaching the arts in a different way. One of my nephews is two years old. A few months ago, he was taken to the cinema for the first time to see Walt Disney’s Bambi. Bambi was preceded by a long first feature. About half-way through my nephew grew impatient. ‘Is Bambi on BBC2?’ he asked. ‘How do you change stations?’
Living in the 1970s presents us with many problems – and one of the biggest that we are faced with is to cope with changes in the arts. The novel is at a low ebb. Publishers are more interested in sales and less than they used to be in quality of writing. Our bookstalls are pock-marked with paperbacks bedecked with stark imagery.
Painting has become very abstract indeed. Many people search to find a meaning, a message, an idea – and find nothing. In the museum of Modern Art in New York, I have seen an oblong painting: a brown panel set on a black background. It was valued at no less the $50000.
In music composers are defying the natural laws of harmony. You see, after a discord, the ear demands to hear harmony. There is the story of a composer who used to work at his piano until late at night. One night he seized on a musical idea – a discordant chord. He played the chord over and over again, musing to himself about how to continue. There came a knock at his door, and the poor chap who lived downstairs said, ‘Please, oh please, resolve that discord’. All our lives are a series of tensions and relaxations. We need both. And so does music.
I have two good friends who play piano duets. They are professors at the Royal College of Music. One day, they were playing a piano transcription of a Bartok quartet. They had played about three-quarters of the way through the work when they suddenly found that, due to faulty binding, the last pages were missing. They looked at each other, smiled, and then simply played on – whatever musical ideas came into their heads. The Bartok had meant nothing to them at all.
This is not to condemn all modern art. By no means. We have several fine composers – Britten, Walton, Malcolm Arnold. We have some fine playwrights – Fry, Pinter, Mercer, Bolt, Osborne. And so on – through all the arts. What I am suggesting is that we need to find some way of distinguishing the sensible from the silly; the sane from the merely sensational. We taste all these new things, and we have to decide, for ourselves, what has value, and what has little or no value. To adapt the song ‘We shall not be moved’ – let us sing instead ‘We shall not be fooled’.
HOW CAN WE LEARN TO SEE CLEARLY?John Ruskin wrote: ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something’. The aim of philosophers throughout the ages, has been to find truth: to see a thing, a person, an event as it really is.
We could list so many examples of times when we fail to see clearly. Some people fall in love, and then dissention and perhaps divorce follow. They suddenly wake up to the fact that they had fallen in love not with the other person, but with an image, an idea, an ideal of what a loved one should be or could be. We need to see people instead, not as we would like them to be, but as they are. It puts a person under a tremendous strain if they can sense – as they soon will – that we expect more from them than they can give.
Or we go on holiday. For twelve months we have been studying travel brochures, making bookings, and talking and dreaming about our holidays, and the fine time we shall have. And then, of course, it rains every day, and we come back bitterly disappointed. By building up an anticipation of pleasure, by setting up in our minds what we look for, hope for, desire, we are failing to come into the situation with a mind that is open and free.
Let me say here that I believe, fervently, in imagination and in vision. These are fine gifts of the Spirit. But we also need to be able to see cleanly. I’ll give you two more examples: - When someone mentions the name of a person you know, you are immediately assailed by feelings, memories, associations – of friendship, love, like, or dislike. In other words, you condition yourself into a state of acceptance or non-acceptance, before the person you are talking to has the change to tell you about his mutual acquaintance.
Or take the problem of promotion at work. So many people get caught up in a whirlpool of more and more pressure at work, without making the time to ask simple questions of themselves: -
• Do I have the ability to take on this new job?
• Will I lose time with my family?
• Will I have to become hard and aggressive in order to survive in the new role?
• Will I have to sacrifice my integrity?
To sum up, many people are getting into problem situations because they have not seen themselves clearly, have not seen others clearly, have not seen the whole situation clearly.
I should like to offer you a short anthology on this subject of seeing. There is George Herbert’s great hymn:
“Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see.”
There are references to ‘seeing’ throughout the Bible. Two of my favourite references are Luke 10: 23-24: “And he turned to his disciples and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things that you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’”
And Psalm 36:9: ‘For with Thee is the fountain of life: in Thy light, shall we see light’.
Lastly I have chosen a marvellous passage from Ruskin’s Stones of Venice - a reflection on colour:
“The fact is, we none of us enough appreciate the nobleness and sacredness of colour. Nothing is more common than to hear it spoken of as a subordinate beauty, - nay, even as the mere source of sensual please; and we might almost believe that we were daily among men who
‘Could strip, for aught the prospect yields
To them, their verdure from the fields;
And take the radiance from the clouds
With which the sun his setting shrouds’.
But it is not so. Such expressions are used for the most part in thoughtlessness; and if the speakers would only take the pains to imagine what the world and their own existence would become, if the blue were taken from the sky, and the gold from the sunshine, and the verdure from the leaves, and the crimson from the blood which is the life of man, the flush from the cheek, the darkness from the eye, the radiance from the hair, - if they could but see, for an instant, white human creatures living in a white world, - they would soon feel what they owe to colour. The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn. We speak rashly of gay colour and sad colour, for colour cannot at once be good and gay. All good colour is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy, and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.”
Often we tend to think of beauty as something formal: a landscape, or a face, or a painting…
But beauty can be so disarmingly simple:
Beauty is the smile of a friend.
Beauty is the smell and taste of fresh fruit.
The laughter of friends is beauty.
There is beauty when two people have argued, and then are restored to harmony and love for each other.
Care for the feelings of others is beauty.
And a brother and sister walking hand in hand, down the street, each protecting the other – that is beauty.
Take Monet’s painting ‘Wild Poppies’. The subject is extremely simple. There are two people in the foreground and two more in the distance. The two pairs are linked by gorgeous blobs of red indicating the poppies. This was the beginning of abstract art.
We can analyse a person, a situation in life, a work of art, and then there comes a time when thinking will take us no further. And it is at this point that we call in our faith, our feelings, our instinct to help us out. These are very perceptive instruments. We live in an age that worships reason and objectivity: the cool, dispassionate approach. Let no one talk down your faith, your feelings and your instinctive perceptions. John Ruskin was once asked why a piece of music was beautiful. And he replied: ‘it is beautiful because it is beautiful’.
RECOGNISING GREAT ART
John Ruskin once said, in memorable simplicity, ‘There are books of the hour, and books of all time.’ Extending this idea, we need to learn to distinguish between art and what I call ‘part-art’. ‘Part-art’ involves only a part of us. Part-art excites, or it stimulates, or it pleases, or it shocks. But great art involves our whole being. We find this same contrast in the people we meet.
Some people only draw out a part of our personalities. Whereas, with others, there is a much fuller contact; much more of our being, our feelings, our mind, our understanding – much more of us is being used.
We experience this total contact, don’t we, when we contemplate a beautiful sunset. At that moment, we are totally absorbed. We are at peace. We feel humble, and full of wonder. We are at one with nature. It is this at-one-ness that we need to develop, in all that we do, and with everyone we meet.
Occasionally we meet someone who gives us total attention. They may have 101 things they are responsible for, but when we are with them, they give us their whole attention. They focus their ability, their compassion, on our needs. What I am suggesting to you is that art can teach us this intensity of attention and contact; and then we can translate this same quality of experience, this deep attention and contact into our relationships with people.
Great art enlarges our view of life. When you have seen, felt, and experienced the corn-fields of Van Gogh; the magnificent faces of Rembrandt; the water lilies of Monet, you look at life with new eyes. And the next time you have contact with nature – the next time you see a cornfield or water lilies – you are looking with the eyes of a bigger, richer, fuller person.
Great art teaches us to observe
Great art expresses an insight into life and into people, that is true for any age. Shakespeare had this deep insight into human nature, and this is one of the main reasons for his long-lasting influence.
In other words, the great artist is not a creature only of his own time. By his intellect, his perception, by reaching deep down into himself and into others, he touches the essential truths about life, and, by so doing, he rises above his period, he rises above fashion.
John Ruskin wrote: ‘Great art has noble purpose’. That, for me, is the beginning and end of the whole question of great art. Put your artistic stethoscope onto the chest of the work of art, feel its pulse, and ask yourself: ‘Does it have noble purpose?’
There is so much realism in the world. People don’t want to go to the theatre to see kitchen-sink drama. They have kitchen-sink drama in their own homes! We want to be uplifted by art. We need inspiration. We need to be put in touch with the spiritual in life: art can play its part in fulfilling this need. The artist shares our struggles, our strivings, our hope, our tension and our peace. He puts his experiences – our experiences – into words, into music, into poetry, or what have you, and he says simply, ‘life is worth living. Carry on. Deepen your own experience. Grow in understanding.’ That is the message of great art.
The great artist like all truly great men, never expects you to look at his work. He blushes when he hears praise, tributes, or speeches, about himself. He is modest about his art. The great artist does not want to talk about himself. He sees himself as a medium of expression, as a person whose role in life it is to reveal Beauty, Truth and Goodness.
Art has a great reconciling power. Art is a strong source of harmony. So strong is music as a source of harmony that it has been proved that cows, under the influence of soothing music, will produce more milk! A more serious use of music is to help those suffering from mental illness. And art, in times of stress and pressure of life, is a source of harmony.
Great art is a teacher of our feelings, our sensitivity – and it is this precious quality, of being a sensitive person, that helps us to respond to the needs of others. I see man as being like a violin. Your feelings, your soul, these are your strings, and they have to be kept in tune. Your choice of friends, your choice of activity, the way you think and speak, what you look at and listen to – in other words, what you allow to influence you – all these keep the strings in tune. Life is the bow. And life plays on your strings. If you have kept them in tune, then the strings and the bow – the man/woman and life will be in harmony.
To sum up: We have recognised that here is a danger that this age is losing sight of the true purpose of art. We have suggested that, in order to understand art and to form a sense of values, we need to be able to see clearly, and especially, to be able to respond to beauty – in all its forms. And lastly – we have seen how closely art is related to life.
We then ask ourselves the question: ‘Can we become artists?’ We can go part of the way. We can develop the artist’s power of observation, and the artist’s sensitivity to life and to people. Our masterpiece is not a beautiful symphony, poem, book, or painting. Our masterpiece is the beautiful life – the life for others.
Our harmony is not to produce the harmony of colour or of music. Our harmony is the harmony of working and praying with others, so that the world may be filled with greater tolerance, understanding and love.
Somerset Maugham wrote: ‘the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.’ ‘The beautiful life’ – with God’s help, that will be our triumph.