Today’s sermon: What is art for? A response, in part, to Raymond Tallis’s Summers of Discontent


arts discontent

To Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday night to hear and join a debate on ‘the purpose of the arts today’, based on Raymond Tallis’s book Summers of Discontent – essentially a careful selection of his previous writings by writer and gallerist Julian Spalding. This isn’t one of those socio-political treatises that tries to explain why we should go on pouring so many millions a year into the Royal Opera House, or why the Arts Council budget should be slashed or increased, but rather a philosophical discussion of what the art encounter, whether it be literature, music or theatre, can give us, as existential, post-religious human beings.

Tallis’s premise is that we as humans suffer a ‘wound’ in the present tense of our consciousness, such that we can never be fully present in our lives, but are always late to our own experiences. Art, he says, can help with this by showing how disparate formal elements can be integrated into one unified work; it offers both a model for how to do the same with our own scattered and disparate memories, thoughts, impulses and anticipations, and also a hypothetical space in which to do that work. It gives us a here and a now to be present in.

I was asked, along with philosopher Roger Scruton and classicist Stephen Johnson, to respond to Tallis and Spalding’s remarks, before the debate was opened to the floor – my ‘role’ being that of novelist, and of novelist about ‘the arts’. My no doubt disjointed comments amounted to some of what follows:

that I fully approved of the notion of the wound in the present tense, and of art’s ability to – partially, temporarily – heal or alleviate it, and of doing so by modelling and facilitating formal integration (where, as Tallis points out, ‘form’ is taken to mean the inside, rather than outside shape of things), but that this is surely an ideal, rather than a usual occurrence.

Tallis was starting from a position where he talked about “art when it is at its best and we are at our most connected” – when, to my mind, most of the time neither of those things is true. (In fact there’s a lovely description in his book of listening to a Haydn Mass “while the squeaky windscreen wipers are battling with rain adding its own percussion on the car roof” – and that is think is how we experience most art.)

As a novelist, I want my writing to be at its best, and my readership at its most connected, always, but as a novelist who writes particularly about the arts (the contemporary art world, in Randall, and the world of pop music in my new book), what I’m interested in is the ordinary failings of poorly connected people responding to less than great art – but who, crucially, are no less committed to that project of arriving at a place of integration and connectedness.

I gave the example of seeing Fleetwood Mac at the 02, a pretty good gig in a dismal setting by a band of which I’m not particularly a fan. (I love the album Tusk to bits, but can do without the rest of their stuff.) I responded variously to the music, leaping up at the songs I liked, nodding along to the rest, but what really got me was the response of the other audience members. There were men in the 60s, podgy and balding, as I’ll doubtless be at that age, standing there agog on the concrete steps, hundreds of metres away from their idols, faces slack and eyes streaming with tears.

This art may not have been at its best, but these people were absolutely connected, to it, and to their own lives – they were 20 again, they had all their hair and fitted into their jeans, they were falling in love with the girl who would go on to be their (first) wife. For me, as novelist, and therefore as someone interested above all in how people interact with the world, how they live, it was this that I found moving. The pathos of the ordinary person brought low by average music.

Extraordinary how potent cheap music is: yes, but something more than that. The potency is not in the music, or not only; it is in our desire, in our eagerness to be discombobulated by it. We positively sign up for it. And yet we can’t know, when we spend our teenage years listening to the same songs over and over again, of the pay-off that will come later. It does different things at different times. It gives us an experience, and lays down markers for other experiences in the future.

The other point that I tried to make, or maybe I didn’t, was the question of how, when and where we should do art. Does that healing of the wound in our present tense work best when it comes in small and regular applications of art’s medicine, or in single, big surgical operations? Read a little every day? Or save it up and immerse yourself?

If that sounds like a glib question, then it’s not supposed to be. If you asked me to list my peak art encounters – the ones when I truly felt art working on me, when I felt myself brushed with revelation, and saw that everything made sense – you would get something like this:

  • Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, especially the final scene, with the two sets of characters dancing around the same stage
  • the end of Robert Lepage’s The Far Side of the Moon, when, I think, he lifts and carries his mother (I remember very little else about the show)
  • twenty-four hours alone in Cornwall, immersed in the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle
  • that moment near the end of Gatz, the ‘dramatised reading’ of The Great Gatsby, when Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway stops reading the battered copy of Fitzgerald’s novel he’s been carrying around with him for the last six hours and starts speaking it, the pages riffling through his fingers like the spokes on a car wheel in an advert, when they seem to spin backwards
  • hearing New Order’s ‘Regret’ for the first time, on the radio in the kitchen of my parents’ house, that guitar hook…
  • the curtain falling at the end of the first act of Tosca at the Royal Opera House: oh, so this is what opera is all about!
  • sitting on the window ledge in Clermont Ferrand stuffing my face with sweets and reading The English Patient in a single day
  • falling asleep on the sofa to Carnival of the Animals as a child
  • falling asleep to András Schiff playing Mozart piano sonatas in a box at a Late Night Prom in 2006 (brilliant – listening to music while half-asleep is a wonderful experience)
  • listening to Patti Smith’s ‘Birdland’ while driving through the Dartford tunnel, my wife and kids unaware of my tears
  • crying at Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, when the mother uses the computer
  • getting a cannabis and sugar rush combined during the heady, bass-heavy nightclub scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds…

That will do for the moment. The point being that these examples split quite obviously into grand and domestic experiences. Some we attend (we attend) with heightened expectations, ready to be blown away. They are designed as ‘peak experiences’. Others – the Coupland, the Ondaatje, the New Order and Patti Smith, the Saint-Saëns – form part of our everyday cultural exposure. The novel gets picked up and put down, picked up and put down; the pieces of music, the pop songs, spring out at us from the car, the computer, on the commute. I have particular love for the first act of John AdamsNixon in China, and though I saw it at the ENO, and again, with Adams conducting, at the Proms, it’s mostly done its work on me at home, on the stereo or, now, on the computer.

Should our exposure to art be a rare occurrence, set up for maximum meaning, like a pilgrimage, or should it be a daily hygiene, like meditation?

Surely daily reading, or listening to music in the car or on your commute, is about something other than ‘healing the wound’ – it’s about distraction, and entertainment. Art involves these things, after all, and no one would suggest that those elements contain whatever it is that heals us.

Or do they? I’ve written myself into a state of confusion. Art does so many things, and if the most important thing – for us, as humans in the contemporary world – is to do that healing work, then how, practically, can we start to disentangle this function from those others? Should we seek it out? Can we? Or will that ruin it? (Or is it there, all along?) I don’t know.



  1. randomyriad

    I just finished listening to a very good audio interpretation of Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon as read by Ron McLarty. If I had read the book my experience would have been much less smooth because I would have to go back and reread passages that made no sense when I got to the end of them and such. All the words would have been the same but I would have misread some had my own inner narrator’s tone and emphasis as well as the sound of the character’s voices in my head. Still I think the impact would have been similar. It makes me pay attention to the personal connections I have with what happens and the characters reactions to it and each other. To art, well done, brings me into a new world that I create with the artist and if it is very good I can take some of that world away with me and return to it by thinking about it, or it returns to me in my thoughts later by making connections in my life. I finished this book yesterday, but I can tell it will be something that will live with me from now on. As will Fleetwood Mac sometimes unbidden, Second Hand News is often playing like 45 on repeat in my brain, but that is another story. I have totally lost my thread, but there might be a connection to what you were saying in here somewhere.

  2. Max Cairnduff

    That Arcadia scene is tremendous.

    I appreciate he’s gone a bit out of fashion already, but the opening paragraph in Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station sadly still remains true of much of my own engagement with art, which while one of the most important things in my life remains often separate through an impenetrable wall of consciousness. Music breaks through that wall, but little else.

    My father a few years back went to see Dylan in concert. I asked how it had been, noting that i understood Dylan’s voice to be long gone. My father commented that they listened with memory’s ears, a phrase that stuck with me. I suspect your Fleetwood Macs were doing the same. In a way FM were perhaps not so much a live act as a live facilitation of memory. For some anyway, some presumably just liked the music.

    I do think peak art often makes one more present, it’s not escapist. When I read a great book on a train yes I’m immersed in the book, but I’m also immersed in the act of me being on that train in a way I’m often not when I’m not actually reading. Somehow the art elevates the whole experience, even the part it’s lifting you out of.

  3. jakv6

    Reblogged this on Pilgrim of Eormen and commented:
    Then one more reason – perhaps the biggest reason – for encouraging (forcing?) children to experience art is so that they can relive their childhood, or at least pieces of it, as adults.

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