Here and There – Inside, Outside

At my primary school in London, I wore a (small!) blazer, green, with a badge on the pocket.  The badge was in the form of a shield, and the shield enclosed the letter ‘B’ in gold.  The B stood for Barantyne (or, Boring, according to kids from other local schools).  Nice colours, dull image.  Secondary school was quite different.  The blazer was black, and the pocket badge was splendid – a stylised white oak tree, and underneath ‘Respice, Prospice’.  For those of you who have forgotten your Latin:  Look Back, Look Forward!  The message was clear.  You should learn from the past, from those who have gone before you.  However, you learnt in order to go forward, or, in the case of the emphasis at my school, in order to become a leader.  That oak tree might more truthfully stood above the phrase: ‘Learn and Lead’.

The admonition to look back, to learn from the past, has stuck with me.  Well, I should be careful.  For many years I was interested in geology, and that certainly dealt with the distant past, as well as more recent times.  However, in my last years of school I was interested in the ‘now’.  There was popular music, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and many more in between, together with cinema, with adventures and thrillers ranging from North by Northwest and Psycho to Lawrence of Arabia and Some Like it Hot, as well as the weird world of continental masterpieces like L’Avventura and Last Year in Marienbad.  Despite this, outside of school and homework my passion was reading, mainly novels ranging from passionate historical romances (yes, really) through to whodunnits and spy thrillers.

I was and still am a fairly solitary individual.  While schoolmates would be out, playing soccer or cricket, eating fast food or getting into minor scrapes, I would be indoors with a book .  I didn’t look back or forward, but rather I was looking elsewhere, living the lives and adventures inside the worlds of characters conjured up by writes as diverse as Agatha Christie and Nevil Shute.  The later years of senior school reduced free reading time and forced me to follow that school motto:  most of the time in class was about ‘respice’, looking back, but as the time was approaching when I would need to apply to go to university if I wanted to continue my education, so prospice, looking forward, began to take my attention.

The school motto didn’t really address interpersonal issues.  It was academic.  Sixty years ago, boys’ schools like mine did a poor job of helping students confront the messy world of hormones, sex, and relationships.  You were on your own!  Books did help, everything from the Pelican Guide to the Human Body through to racy novels, but in the pressured world of the last years of high school, that wasn’t much.  I suspect some of my school colleagues talked about these issues, but my generally solitary nature was a handicap.  I had to sort things out for myself, and I made quite a hash of it.  By the time I was nineteen I was starting my university studies, but I was also married, with a child on the way.

Looking back now, I can see I was fairly resilient.  After an uncomfortable first year, I thrived at the university, enjoying study, revelling in discussions, caught up in the dramas of higher education in the 1960s.  At the same time, I would go back to my flat, and enjoy life with one and then two young daughters, who proved a magnet for student friends who’d come round to talk and enjoy family life while listening to the latest pop records!

Resilient?  All that was at a cost.  Feelings held in abeyance.  It was revelation to read an article in the New York Times recently.  Margaret Renkl wrote an essay on the theme of Summers End, but Our Desires Last a Lifetime, (August 29, 2022).  Six months out of kilter with Australia, it was about the end of summer, or insect weather as she termed it.  It reminded me of the end of summer in North Carolina.  “The broadhead skink who uses our front stoop as her sunning spot has emerged from the hiding place where she guarded her eggs, curving around them as protectively as any nursing mother. Every afternoon, she is back on the stoop, soaking up the hot summer sun.  The resident hummingbirds are bulking up for the long migration ahead, fiercely defending both flowers and feeder.  The peaceful little skippers always yield the zinnias, but they needn’t yield for long.  As the time for travel nears, the hummingbirds are more focused on fighting one another than on keeping the skippers and the bumblebees away from the flowers.”

That was evocative, but it was a trick.  A little later on the theme shifted: “I am long past my own baby season, past even the season of hungry fledglings, but I am not past the nudging thrum of need.  It’s something I think about every year at this time. For almost all my wild neighbours, the end of summer coincides with the end of courtship and mating, of childbearing and child rearing, but it does not signal the end of much of anything for me. A human family remains a family, far beyond the time of nest building and nest tending. For a female human, unlike females of almost all other species, desire, too, persists for decades past the time when it serves as a spur to reproduction. Its persistence is one of the great blessings of being human.”  Yes, and it’s true for male humans, too, though we often deny it.

Not entirely the same.  Margaret Renkl went on to add, “We all want to be touched, to be desired, even at an age when our culture tells us that we are in no way desirable. If there is any truth more fundamental than the human need to be chosen, surely it is the abiding suspicion that we don’t deserve to be chosen.” And yet … “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life”, wrote The New Yorker’s Roger Angell in 2014, “but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.” He was 93 when he wrote those words.”  For most of us boys, once we were in the workforce, it was life outside of intimate relationships that took over.  Employment was about success and failure, leading and being led, careers and failures:  life was centred around the workplace, and everything else was peripheral, although desire could and did sneak into office relationships!

Employment proved to be a jealous process.  Initially getting a job was alongside finding a partner, getting a car, having somewhere to live, occasionally having fun.  However, slowly but surely for many like me, work took over, almost imperceptibly at first.  You’d get up a little earlier, return home a little later, and time at weekends was an opportunity to catch up on unfinished business, real leisure gently squeezed into smaller and smaller periods of time.

There were moments when that process was laid bare, however.  I can clearly remember when a popular song suddenly spoke to me with uncomfortable clarity.  In 1971, still in my twenties, Carole King broke through with Tapestry.  The song opened with a glorious image: “My life has been a tapestry/ Of rich and royal hue/ An everlasting vision/ Of the ever-changing view”.  However, we were to discover that this was the beginning of a more complex, darker story:  it ends “There suddenly appeared/ A figure gray and ghostly/ Beneath a flowing beard/ In times of deepest darkness/ I’ve seen him dressed in black/ Now my tapestry’s unravelling/ He’s come to take me back”.  Was that going to happen to me?  That song, those lines, still echo in the back of my mind today, the imagery all too clear.

Another moment like that was when Janis Ian released At Seventeen in 1976.  A song about teenage angst and uncertainty, I found it evocative in another way:  was this what I had missed going straight from high school to being a married student at university?  By the time it appeared, I was working in Australia, and being seventeen seemed part of a distant past.  “It was long ago and far away/ The world was younger than today/ When dreams were all they gave for free/ To ugly duckling girls like me/ We all play the game, and when we dare/ To cheat ourselves at solitaire/ Inventing lovers on the phone/ Repenting other lives unknown/ They call and say, “Come dance with me”/ And murmur vague obscenities/ At ugly girls like me/ At seventeen”.  For me, Janis Ian’s song was about that stage in life when you felt left out, watching others apparently thrive and move on, while you stayed stuck and uncertain.  I know some regard Seventeen as a reflection on grappling with homosexuality:  I think it is about the perils of growing up more generally (a view Janis Ian has supported).

Listening to songs like these broke through that otherwise traditional path:  study, work, find a job with prospects (as my father advised), buy a home, become responsible.  Like many others, now I engage in a lot more backward-looking reflection as I’m getting older, my life no longer dominated by the demanding routines of full-time work.  This isn’t about regrets; I’ve never indulged in the game of ‘if only’ or ‘I wish I had’.  Rather I look back and ask, “What else do I want to do, in whatever time I have left?”  Apart from writing blogs, I can indulge in the things I love, in reading, listening to music, looking at art.  However, as I look around me, I feel concerned that the opportunities in life I’ve had are slowly disappearing.  If I squashed responding to my feelings into a smaller part of my life for a long time, today it seems as if contemporary lifestyles are putting people under even greater pressure as society tries to compress almost everything into an instrumental framework.  Led by marketing we live in a pervasive culture which works unceasingly to help the individual ‘fit in’…

Another perspective on this came from reading Alice Gribbin’s frightening yet illuminating comments on art in a recent  issue of Tablet: “Artworks are not to  be experienced but to be understood: From all directions, across the visual art world’s many arenas, the relationship between art and the viewer has come to be framed in this way. An artwork communicates a message, and comprehending that message is the work of its audience. Paintings are their images; physically encountering an original is nice, yes, but it’s not as if any essence resides there. Even a verbal description of a painting provides enough information for its message to be clear.” Sadly, many exhibition reviews closely follow that formula.

Gribbin continues, “This vulgar and impoverishing approach to art denigrates the human mind, spirit, and senses. …  The institutions tasked with the promotion and preservation of art have determined that the artwork is a message-delivery system. … Progressive institutions today are overrun with utilitarians.  They are the professors within universities, the administrators at major grant-awarding bodies—the MacArthur, Mellon, Guggenheim, and Ford foundations; Creative Capital; the NEA and NEH.  At the public-facing venues, their attitude to art is everywhere evident: in the types of exhibitions mounted; in the way shows are curated, publicized, and reviewed; in what aspects of artworks are highlighted for audiences. Within museums, audiences are encouraged to seek not aesthetic experiences but the feeling of knowingness. Today’s educated classes cannot, as those in the 1950s and ’60s could, expect to build modest personal collections of contemporary art.  Far better, though, the institutions insist, to possess art intellectually, to understand works once and for all.  Artists can be mentally checked off on a list:  ‘I understand her paintings; his installations; her sculptures. I have studied their relevance. Their message is clear to me’.”

When I first began to visit galleries, attend concerts or read, my experience was unmediated:  no experts told me what a painting meant, what the music was addressing, or how the novel explained important social issues.  I could be absorbed by the art, the sounds, the words, as they were.  Of course, there was meaning to be found:  some paintings were clearly intended to convey horror at inhuman activities, some novels called out perversions, however subtle, and showed their destructive consequences.  Yes, they conveyed culture, and cultural critique is important.  But they were exercises in aesthetics, too, challenging me to understand what is good, beautiful, transcendent.  I would listen to what others said about music I loved, or a book I had enjoyed, but that would do more than add to my experience, not replace it.  A drama set in a fascist country might help me understand how powerful people manipulate others, but it might also explore the complexities of love, biography, and language.

We can take Alice Gribbin’s analysis a little further in seeing how the market emphasises instrumentality.  Today it isn’t just that a picture has to be analysed in terms of what it conveys, its message, it also carries another meaning, determined by its transactional value.  In any major art gallery today, you will find largely empty rooms, except those where there is a ‘famous’ painting;  there the crowds gather took at an object, which cost, let’s say, $100m.  Now we can skip over the artist’s message entirely, shake our heads as we glance at the picture, then quickly move on knowing what matters, its ‘real’ value, is its market price.

It reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful play, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Packed with superb exchanges, here are Cecil Graham and Lord Darlington talking:

“Cecil Graham: What is a cynic?

Lord Darlington: A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

Cecil Graham: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”

Does value rest in what I’m told it’s ‘about’?  Is ‘real value’ determined by the marketplace?

I was typing this while the ABC’s ‘Concert Hall’ broadcast two Mozart piano concertos.  At one point I stopped typing, absorbed in the music:  the piano and the orchestra listened and responded to one another; it was at times uplifting, at times reflective, a conversation without words.  In ABC Classical’s wisdom, the introduction was restricted to the name of the piece, the players.  It was a privilege to be left to listen without being told what the composer meant.  I remembered Alice Gribbin, when she said, “We derive meaning from artworks privately … meaning opens up within us slowly: on the third, closer read of the poem; after evaluating a painting for some time, once the eye has roamed and settled and roamed again, noticed detail, related parts to their whole.”  Yes, but my enjoyment didn’t just appear based on innate, genetic factors either.  My appreciation had developed through social experiences, with parents, teachers, partners, all subtly shaping my aesthetic sensibilities.

I’ve been lucky.  I grew up when the compulsion to explain was less dominant.  Questioning the values and assumptions of the artist, revealing the cultural, economic or political context, is important.  So is recognising personal limitations.  I’m a white, middle class Anglo-Saxon male, shaped and biased in many ways.  Like Alice Gribbin, I like to appreciate art directly, my experiences shifting over time, and I avoid relying on perceptions that reduce experiences to class, gender and economics.  But if this perspective reflects that solitary and introspective person I described earlier, that isn’t how I see myself today.  Now I know my experiences flourish when I explore them with friends and family.  Like Roger Angell, I still have that need for deep attachment and intimate love, and my desire to be engaged with others is not just an innate biological drive to reproduce!  Connection is much more than that.  What makes us human is being part of society.  I got there in the end, understanding that however rich an internal life might appear, what matters is its source, outside, through our connections to others.  We are social animals, and our challenge today is to fend off attempts to turn us into mere consumers, obedient pawns inside a vast and complex capitalist economy.