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. Continue reading
Today’s text is taken from Nicholson Baker’s U&I (pg 20, in its cute little US Random House hardback), which I happened to leafing through yesterday for some other reason, when I came across these lines:
Updike was much more important to me than Barthelme as a model and influence, and now the simple knowledge that he was alive and writing and had just published one of his best books, Self-Consciousness, felt like a piece of huge luck. How fortunate I was to be alive when he was alive!
I remember being struck by this when I read the book before, because that is what I had thought, too late, on reading the obituary of Samuel Beckett, when I was 17. I was suddenly struck with the fact that I had been alive, on the planet, at the same time as this person, and with what a huge privilege that was. Beckett would go on being read down the ages, and people in the future would pause from their reading, look out the window and wonder what the world was like, back then, that it could have produced such a response – and I knew. I was there! (Okay, I wasn’t alive when he was writing most of what people would be reading, down those ages, but that was only half the point: I was enviable. I was to be envied.)
The thought, the memory, passed, and I got on with whatever I was doing, but then that evening, as I was doing the ironing, I watched the BBC4 documentary ‘American Master: A Portrait of John Adams’, during which it was mentioned that Adams was the most performed living composer, and it struck me, again, as it had not struck me since Beckett, that here was someone I was privileged to be sharing the planet with: him, creating, me, listening. Continue reading