Awkward Around Art


From Midnight in Paris, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011

by Jenny Diski

There is a picture in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where I live, called The Annunciation. I keep a postcard of it in my writing room, and visit the actual painting from time to time. A winged and haloed angel Gabriel, holding white lilies and pointing up to the heavens, kneels before the Virgin Mary, also haloed, her arms crossed on her breast, her head slightly bent to receive his earth-shattering message. They are in a kind of reception room. Mary stands behind pillars, Gabriel kneels in front of pillars opposite. Between them at the centre of the picture two more pillars guard an open doorway to a garden path that leads to a wooden door that seems to go out into the outside world. The floor tiles inside and outer wall around the door are terracotta and echo Gabriel’s swathed robe and the dress of the Madonna. Mary wears her blue cloak, and Gabriel a tunic of the same colour. The walls of the reception room are a pale blue grey, and beyond the outside wall, just a little of the cerulean blue sky can be seen. It’s a painting about so many things and it can be looked at repeatedly. The occasion is momentous, of course, and at a great distance from ordinary human life, although, as the 15th century understood it, it was also the announcement that was going to change humanity forever. It’s a painting that speaks of distance in every kind of way. Gabriel and Mary are far apart in the room and in a formal relation to each other. At this early Renaissance moment, the artist, Domenico Veneziano, is revelling in his immaculate grasp of perspective, of depicting the distances between the figures and the spaces in the room, with its ten upright columns, the rectangular tiling on the floor, the space from the doorway through to the garden and the door out into the world. And there is the metaphysical distance of course between the angel and the woman. The picture is pale, calm, orderly and beautiful in its proportions and its philosophical implication of a world about to be saved. It isn’t the world of workers and peasants that Bruegel painted a hundred years later, it is the formal announcement that there will be harmony and balance in the world. It is, I have no doubt, art.

I am awkward around art. Not at all confident about how I should look and what I should feel. I stand both pleased and helpless in front of this painting and look, think about what I’m looking at, and wonder about it, in as much as I can, because I’m not an art historian. Often, standing in front of paintings I wonder what it is I am supposed to be feeling beyond the looking and thinking. Artists I have known talk about ‘just responding’ to a picture. But I’m never sure what just responding is. I worry about it. It is only in writing the above paragraph for this article that I’ve managed to figure out what exactly it is I like and might ‘feel’ about the Veneziano.

But does it matter? Does art matter? Would it matter if I’d never seen it? Imagine how many thousands of fine paintings I haven’t seen. What is it I lose in not knowing or seeing paintings and sculpture? Certainly, there is a great difference between the postcard I have and the painting in the Fitzwilliam (the colours are not quite right, and it gives no indication of how small the painting actually is). There are many pictures I only know from books or postcard reproductions. Van Gogh paintings in real life are jewels of which the reproductions are mere outlines in shadow.

Does art matter to a society, then? It always goes without saying that it does. And all of those involved with the humanities, teaching, making, curating, or just enjoying art of various kinds, will insist on the necessity of art to human society. But the truth is that most of the world, most of the time, doesn’t confront great art. Great art has always been for the few. For popes and monarchs in their palaces, for those free to get to wealthy and nationally-supported metropolitan museums. Most people know the popular dopplegangers of great art, and the cliché about ‘knowing nothing about art, but knowing what I like’ is understood to be a populist response to the elitism of the fine art world.


The Annunciation, Domenico Veneziano, c.1442 to 1448

Then there’s the matter of popular taste. Tea towels with Vincent’s Sunflowers, Jack Vettriano’s hugely-selling, sentimental paintings, the orientalist Chinese Green Lady by Tretchikoff that hung on the walls of a millions homes in the 1950s, including mine. Are these good for the soul and society? Or does taste need to be good, and does good taste come to a special few with an ‘eye’, or from education and on high to be trickled down to the masses for their benefit. I don’t know the answers to any of this. The only thing I’m sure of is that I would, if I owned it, sell the Veneziano painting like a shot if I or anyone were hungry or sick and had no other way to eat or receive medical attention. But that’s an extreme case. I certainly wouldn’t offer my treasure to the present government so that they can clear the national debt, no matter how much I’m told it’s the right thing to do. And yet if it would clear the real suffering being caused by the government’s methods of clearing of the debt, I would sell it.

In 1956, Anthony Crosland published a book called The Future of Socialism. Crosland had been a minister in the post-war Labour government, more to the right than the left of the Labour Party. In the book, he wrote of the necessity of the welfare state and added that in a ‘good society’:

We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum.

Austerity Britain was a grim place. In spite of the post-war debt, and the rationing that still continued, here was a politician saying that what was needed, as well as a nationally financed system of health care and protection against poverty, was attention to art, design, and the architecture of public venues for eating and meeting, and that it was the job of a socialist government to provide and encourage these things.

It’s been a long time since anyone, even the Labour Party, used the word ‘socialist’ in anything other than a derogatory sense. The present government, in the name of getting the public debt down, have made cuts in everything Crosland suggested made up the good society and the Labour oppostion have pretty much acceeded to what they claim to be ‘the necessity’. We know what is happening to our beloved welfare system, but what about the arts? The present government has made it clear that only ‘science’ and ‘technology’ offer the ‘value for money’ they insist will resolve the UK’s problems. Government funding for the humanities in universities have been cut by 30% and it’s expected that they will receive no funding at all in the longer term. The Arts Council has also had it’s allocation of money cut by 30%. This means that in some places, such as Somerset, local councils in receipt of Arts Council grants have cut their arts funding by 100%, because their other grants for everyday living have been cut too. Not only that, but the previous Chairman, Liz Forgan, a former BBC pro-arts executive, has been sacked before her term is up essentially for being too elitest, and Peter Bazalgette has been put in her place. Bazalgette was the head of the production company, Endemol, which brought Big Brother, the money spinning reality show, to British screens. Clearly, he is there to ensure the arts does it bit in providing popular works that will bring in money. These days there are people who openly state that if something is popular, it must be good, and they are assisted in an essential way by those who claim that ‘great art’ and anything not immediately graspable is elitist. As I say, I really don’t know what happens to human beings when the arts are turned into fast-gratification, money-making projects. Something tells me that it matters. I have a sense of terrible loss as the taking down of departments of literature, philosophy and fine art in universities, at the closure of local libraries and the selling of museum and art gallery treasures to make up the lost government funding. I am prepared to accept that I am elitist. I like and admire work that makes the reader or viewer work. I know at any rate, I want the best in the arts of all kinds, not the best-selling. And as Gertrude Stein said: ‘Governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly what they are not’.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued.

First published in Swedish in Goteborg-Posten, September 2012