“That’s Not Art!”

One of the many blessings of life at Mill Grove is that we are situated within walking distance of a London Underground Station. The Cities of London and Westminster are about half an hour away.

Thus it was that during the Spring holiday five of us, including one young person in a wheelchair, made a trip to the South Bank of the Thames. The weather was pleasant and the tide was ebbing to reveal a stretch of golden sand below us as we scanned the horizon on the north side of the river: the Old Bailey, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Barbican and the “Gherkin” were among the buildings that immediately stood out.

Art in the gallery

We had a picnic beside the river musing about some of the people during two thousand years of history that had travelled along this famous waterway. Then we spent a good part of the afternoon exploring Tate Modern. As it happened, we arrived when Shibboleth, the exhibit in the Turbine Hall, was being dismantled. As you may know, it was a crack that extended the length of the Hall: we discovered that there actually was a real crack in the floor of the Gallery, and that there is likely to be a scar remaining forever. I suspect that this was intended by the creator of the crack.

Using one of the lifts we got to the permanent exhibitions on Floors Three and Five, moving around in a relaxed way, sometimes pausing as a group, and at other times finding one or two of us discussing a particular painting or sculpture before moving on. And so it was that we looked at or passed by works by Paul Klee, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and dozens of others. We noted the infamous “pile of bricks”, empty boxes, film sequences and seemingly every conceivable combination of shape and colour.

I can’t remember exactly where it was, but the moment came when one of our little group told the rest of us, “That’s not art!” Perhaps it was in the room with Warhol’s giant diptych featuring hamburger adverts. I responded by asking him to help us understand what he meant by real art, and he gave the example of a recent track of a CD that he had recorded. It was called Disability is my Ability. He explained that there was a point to this: it had a message, and was saying something that as far as he knew no one had said before. He was trying to get people to see certain things in the world in a different way: and having done that, to act differently.

He had such a good point that I wondered how the conversation might have developed had he been able to talk with some of the artists whose work was on display. I thought that they might get on rather well!

Seeing things differently

When we emerged from the Tate, the tide was low and there was a pleasant springtime coolness in the air. We walked West with the river and Westminster bathed in a golden evening sunlight. At the National Film Theatre we found skate-borders plying their skills in the area dedicated to this activity, with painting or graffiti forming the backdrop to their feats. Each of our young people was engrossed in following the thrills and spills of the half a dozen or so exponents of what we might call this “art”, or was it drama?

There was appreciation of quite a lot of the painting, and spontaneous applause at some of the achievements of the skaters. We had an ice-cream while watching some other youngsters performing some stunning feats of acrobatics off the steps leading down to the river, and landing on the beach. If it was art, then it was art for art’s sake: a natural expression of human form and movement done for what seemed like sheer enjoyment.

We came home by District Line getting on at Westminster and changing at Mile End. At Stratford we looked at the massive work going on in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. And I for one think that, as a result of the day and the company I was in, I will probably see the world a little differently. It may all have been assisted by the fact that everything was accompanied by the quiet, gentle movement of the river, for what we saw in the Tate and later by the river, seemed to relate closely to each other. Twentieth century artists had forged new understandings of art, materials, relationships and perhaps life itself. Would there have been the same graffiti, skate-boarding and gymnastics had it not been for modern art?

Art in living

Days later we have been pondering how far boxing is a sport, and whether Mohammed Ali could be called an artist, and we have asked similar questions of some of the football stars of our time. Some of their movements and goals seem to have a quality of beauty.

But the single moment that stands out for me was that utterance about art. It was a statement that was prepared to judge all art in relationship to a track on his own CD album. We were surrounded by the works of some of the most renowned artists of the twentieth century, and the rest of us were listening attentively. I was strangely moved, for here quite unexpectedly there was an intersection between the present and history, the personal and the public, and between particular individuals from very disparate backgrounds.

In the book The Growth of Love I have tried to explain that the nature of love and the way it grows is not to be specified or programmed. It requires security and firm boundaries, recognition of a person’s self-worth or significance, and a sense of community, and it thrives where there is rejoicing in creativity and play. But you can’t predict when there will be moments of revelation or disclosure. You need to be alert to them and ready to pause to allow their meaning to sink in.

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