“And the first rude sketch that the world had seen brought joy to his mighty heart, Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, ‘It’s pretty, but is it Art?’”
Kipling’s reflection on Adam’s first drawing goes to the heart of the matter: what are the criteria which distinguish art from other human endeavour? It came to the fore in the Royal Opera House’s recent production of Guillaume Tell, where a gang rape was portrayed so realistically that the audience booed. No doubt the director, Damiano Michieletto, believed that the graphic representation of obscenity contributed to the work; on the contrary, it showed only that he did not understand the nature of art. Let me illustrate.
The National Theatre production of War Horse did not figure an actual horse but a puppet horse played by two actors — as in pantomime. Yet it was deeply moving because it obliged us to step over the footlights and to use our imaginations to conceive the reality of the horse alive in our minds. Contrast that with Spielberg’s high budget film of War Horse where the horse was a mere photographic image. It is the nature of art to pull us through the threshold of the literal and into our internal worlds. Art only happens when the vision of the artist connects with the mind of his audience, and the circuit closes. At night the Mona Lisa is no more than a concoction of poplar board and paint. But when the first morning visitor responds to it, art happens.
For many, the opera, notwithstanding its apparently absurd conventions, is the peak of artistic experience. You only need to hear the tense silence at a moment when 2000 people, holding their breath, come together as one person joined in a shared emotion. Monteverdi, in Orfeo, the earliest extant opera, chose music to tell his story because its beauty would bring his listeners closer to God. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro tells us as much as we need to know about the simmering of its contemporary society; it predated the French Revolution by only three years. Beethoven’s Fidelio captures the political injustices in Europe a generation later. Or, as an alternative, try Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by MacMillan. If you don’t emerge wrung out by emotion you have no soul.
The graphic arts have changed mightily since the 19th century. The role of recording scenes and faces has largely transferred to photography, imposing on the artist a greater obligation to point to inner meanings. So, from Impressionism to the fully abstract, by way of Hirst and Emin, we get to the Turner Prize, and many of us find ourselves stumped.
Visiting a Newbury Street gallery in Boston, a lady asked me to explain the pictures of the abstract artist being exhibited there. As I rose to the challenge one or two others joined us. By the final room my audience had multiplied. I think that my English accent must have given authority to my hastily invented analysis. As I was commenting on the supposed phallic overtones of the last picture I noticed that the artist himself had joined the little crowd. His expression was quizzical. On our way home I asked the gallery owner how he evaluated the artist. “At thirty thousand dollars a picture” he replied.
Literary fiction creates new worlds. For some years I had a long commute to work, and it was a joy. My railway carriage became Barchester or St Petersburg. My travelling companions were Anna Karenina or Heathcliff. The scenery was no longer Clapham Junction but Hardy’s Wessex. I remember an occasion when the late, great, Dr Jack Dominian was speaking to an audience of marriage counsellors. He announced his new discovery which he wished us all to heed: that reading fiction was not a waste of time, it could actually tell us about human nature. We all nodded gravely.
Nowadays he might have spoken of art as a form of play. Science is beginning to understand how the free flow of imaginative exploration in situations which only picture reality, thus constituting play, are a balm to the soul. “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression” says Doctor Stuart Brown of the Californian National Institute of Play. Art is never wasted.
Many of our contemporaries of a secular mind recognise its spiritual nature. Their experience releases them from the mundane and takes them into a higher world of beauty and imagination. It does not necessarily take them to God. But it does take me. There are moments in great art when, with Miranda in The Tempest, I find myself saying “How many goodly creatures are there here! O brave new world that has such people in it.” And I wonder at the greatness of God who created them and, through them, such art.