Art is not a zero-sum game

The Line of the Plough exhibited 1919 Sir Arnesby Brown 1866-1955 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1919
‘The Line of the Plough’, Sir Arnesby Brown (Tate Gallery)

‘If you love it here, you love the bleakness and the vast flat sky and landscape.’

A few weeks ago, I listened to someone explain why Norfolk meant so much to him both as an artist and as a place to live. The conversation came back to me this week at a meeting of French cultural managers, at which I heard many participants speak of art’s transcendence. I had the impression of an almost sacred practice that gave access to an experience of universal meaning, beyond the material world. Kant’s legacy remains very influential in Western art, and its servants.

Having spent my working life in this field, I’m also convinced of art’s importance, while recognising what the French call a ‘déformation professionnelle’—the distortion that comes from seeing the world through the lens of one’s daily occupation. I believe that art is a way of knowing unlike others, which is why humans have invented it: that idea is the foundation of the thinking documented in this site and the associated publications.

By now you will be expecting a ‘but’: here it is. I believe that art is a way of knowing unlike others, but that doesn’t make it more important than the others. It is one device in the toolbox of human understanding. It is particularly suited to certain kinds of experience. But other tools and other experiences can be equally valuable. People find transcendence in nature, in religion, in science, in relationships, in sport and elsewhere. Very often, they are as convinced of the universal good they have experienced as those who advocate so zealously for art.

The Norfolk painter came to mind because, like many people with a personal rather than a professional interest in art, he spoke as passionately of walking the fields, seeing a hare or watching an old plane as he did of the images in which he tried to capture these fleeting moments.

To value one kind of experience, one glimpse beyond the selfish and material, does not require a rejection of all others. Life is not a zero-sum game. The heart is capacious.

Tilney St Lawrence, a sketch by Rosie Redzia for 'A Wider Horizon'
Tilney St Lawrence, a sketch by Rosie Redzia for ‘A Wider Horizon’

A gift

Ecclesall Piano

Yesterday evening, Kaoru Bingham gave a piano recital at Ecclesall parish church, where Sheffield edges into the Pennines. There were perhaps a hundred people, mostly sitting close round the piano. I don’t remember such stillness at a concert before: not a cough or a shuffle. You could have heard a page turn, but there was no need: the programme of Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Satie and Chopin was played from memory.

I met Kaoru late in the process of working on Bread and Salt, so her remarkable story does not figure greatly in the book. (But that’s true in varying degrees of all the artists I spoke to, so rich is particularity of each life. This recital was my first chance to hear her extraordinary gifts as a musician. I’m not competent to give a critic’s account of Kaoru’s performance, but I had a wonderful and memorable evening.

Classical music is not usually associated with what arts policy calls ‘cultural diversity’. But diversity was everywhere last night. Here was a Japanese musician settled in Britain and playing work by composers from Germany, Poland, France and Austria to an audience with evident variations of culture, age, background and so on. We had gathered in a late 18th century building imitating a 13th century style thought suitable for a religion rooted in Palestine and Rome. And we listened, among other pieces, to a Mozart sonata that imitated the musical styles of the Turkish forces that had besieged Vienna a century before its composition.

Diversity was everywhere and completely ordinary, not worth commenting on, even here, except that it is so often made into a problem. But last night, as so often in everyday life, it was what we shared as human beings that brought us together around that piano: a gift and a regular marvel.

Kaoru Bingham recital