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’


  1. not exception culturelle, then???!! (which I can’t bear for precisely the reasons below – very nice piece)

  2. Reblogged this on CHRIS FREMANTLE and commented:
    Francois Matarasso offers an excellent articulation of the importance of art as “a way of knowing unlike others” and of the passion associated with that. He goes on to make an important point – other ways of knowing are also distinctive and equally valuable, “I believe that art is a way of knowing unlike others, but that doesn’t make it more important than the others.” His conclusion seemed to me to highlight something fundamental to collaboration and working with other ways of knowing, which we sometimes call ‘interdisciplinarity’. He says “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.” When he says “The heart is capacious” he implies the critical thing, which is that to collaborate or work across disciplines requires acknowledging that the other way of knowing that you are engaging with is equally valid, and moreover, that you need to make space in your heart as well as your mind to love the other way of knowing as well. This is so evident in the practices of artists working in social and ecological contexts. It is absolutely obvious when you think about it that Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison for instance love and value the ways of knowing of ecological scientists.

    1. Thanks for your comment Chris. In the way of these things, your post about the Wellcome Trust piece – ‘What has art ever done for science?’ – seemed very apposite in this context. Reading that, and then around it, I was disappointed to find an equally blinkered view expressed by Lewis Wolpert, whose writing I have enjoyed in the past, in which he claims science as ‘the best way to understand the world’. I’ve written about it on my parallel site, in much the same vein as here. Human beings need faith, it seems, but faith can retain a sceptical perspective, which one would think was intrinsic to good practice in both art and science. Otherwise, we just turn into missionaries.

  3. Francois Matarasso reminds us that artists have feet of clay, and the lens you use to view the world (art, architecture, engineering or brain surgery) shapes what you see, what you experience and what you think you know. Chris you rightly pick up the import of recognizing that ‘other’ discipline (like everyone around us) needs to be listened to with an open heart and mind if we are to get anywhere. The danger of transcendence is of course the presumption of working beyond the edges of ‘normal’ human experience. I wonder where this germ began, is Kant the source and the modernist pursuit of material practice the epidemic? Are we just beginning to wake up to the infection at the heart of our discipline, the ‘déformation du monde artistique’? (Apologies if the French is incorrect.)

    1. The wish for transcendence – something beyond our selves – seems to be woven into human beings, though some feel it more strongly than others. Kant’s aesthetic project, as I understand it, seems to want to keep what religion offered without keeping religion (like Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists).

      I’m in rural France, where the sky is a nightly reminder of the scale and mystery of what is. It takes some humility to accept that the best we can do in response is try to ask good questions about it. I mistrust those who think they have answers because it is such a short step from that to believing that no one else does.

  4. Transcendence is one thing that it’s difficult to talk about and love is another. Over the past year I’ve been doing events with a-n The Artists Information Company under the banner of Collaborate Creatively. This point about recognising each others’ passions and giving space to them in our hearts is really important in that context – there is a real danger that we as artists feel ourselves to be the weaker form of knowledge and therefore to have to be combative or assertive when dealing with other disciplines, whereas the most successful collaborations might well be characterised by shared love and passion. I use a quote from Grant Kester’s recent book The One and The Many in which he says, “In the most successful collaborative projects we encounter instead a pragmatic openness to site and situation, a willingness to engage with specific cultures and communities in a creative and improvisational manner … , a concern with non-hierarchical and participatory processes, and a critical and self-reflexive relationship to practice itself. Another important component is the desire to cultivate and enhance forms of
    solidarity… .” (2011, p125) Grant doesn’t use the words love and passion, but reading this back, he certainly could have. For me it’s the word ‘solidarity’ at the end that opens up a different dimension to what is otherwise a fairly straightforward and recogniseable description of certain practices. For me solidarity of course refers back to the 80s in Poland, but more importantly is not about what the artist (or perhaps community worker) ought to do in relation to context, but travels forward through time to what the quality of the interpersonal might be.

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