“You can draw with a paintbrush,” said Peter, as we walked along the frozen streets of Amsterdam. It was 35 years ago, I was seventeen and just at that age when collapsing boundaries and authorities were most appealing.
“Wouldn’t that be painting then?” I asked.
“What I am getting at,” he continued, “is that there is drawing in painting. Disegno the Renaissance Italians called it, but we have moved on.”
We had spent the morning in the modern art museum where I had been struck by Matisse’s paper cut-outs. “Drawing or painting or something else entirely?” I had asked. It seemed to me that, if I couldn’t put my finger on where the art was, I’d be missing the point. What if an assistant had painted the paper? Not there then. Another had done the cutting; not there either. This had all moved along in a jumble of ideas that led to those mysterious untransformed objects in the Minimalist gallery where art (as in the objects left by arty hands doing arty stuff, leaving visible marks of the artiness of the artist) was on the point of evanescence. Hamish Fulton walks. He is an artist who walks.
“Can drawing be a walk?”
“That bollard on the street. I read it as art and it is.”
“So, art is reading.”
In the Rijksmuseum, it was all so much more stable. You could say what was a still life, what was a portrait and what a history painting. You could get the categories right even if there were some problems with hierarchy. And even there I had the odd sense that shuffling along looking at the masterpieces and “oohing” at the paintwork, the colours, the light and, yes- why not?- the drawing, was a way of putting the frame around myself.
That was a painting for a burgher’s house: not mine.
That was a painting for a noble’s palace: not mine.
That was a painting for a church: not mine.
All paintings. All art. And me admiring the brushwork and thinking about who painted them as if this fact obliterated what divided them from me, as if they had been painted for me, a middle-class kid in an age of art galleries.
Rubens. God, no! All that flesh and bulgy eyes
Back in the hotel we were discussing the merits of what we had seen. I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to find just one painter with the technique of Rubens?”
“It would be something, but it wouldn’t be cool,” said Joe touching me on a tender point. I was square on all six sides and had a thumbed copy of Metaphysical Poets in my pack.
Peter agreed. “Art has moved on,” he said. “You can’t go around with those old-style ideas of disegno and invenzione in your head. Can’t you see the whole thing has changed?”
“In what way?” And wasn´t it you that brought up disegno?
“The whole craft thing is part of a different Weltanschaung. Now we want a more open facture so that the trace of the artist is visible in the making. Or not. Anyway, it is all an issue now like it never was then. You gotta respond to the issues of your time. You can’t go back.”
“Yup,” said Joe. “It’s like evolution, but it is culture evolving and we are part of it.”
Joe painted big landscapes in the Nash tradition: kinda abstract, kinda not; pallid English colours. He left swathes of scumble and broken paint to reveal the colours beneath. They were painterly and good, I guess, but I kept coming back to a memory of that creamy, magical substance that Rubens used, a different kind of paint. “I can’t say that,” I thought. “They will both say I don’t get it. They will think I am a knob.”
Peter was a new Romantic. He didn’t listen to Spandau Ballet and wear ruffly shirts but he did sign up to the whole “intense experience in Nature” Romantic lark. He was the teacher. He took it upon himself to open doors and re-examine base assumptions, but even in my naïve youth, I thought, “What’s the difference between getting stuck in the nineteenth-century or the early twentieth-century and getting stuck in the seventeenth?” For all his boundary-collapsing he wasn’t about to accept that anyone could be Hamish Fulton but Hamish Fulton. His walks were Art because he was an Artist. The rest of us could get along with being sub-this-that-or-the-other. An Artist was an original. The rest of us anachronists.
I misremember. Of course, I do. I take the raw material of my life and write it down in ways it never took place. I make a reading of it.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, does it? You get yourself into these tangles and you don’t see that they are all of your own making. And they signify nothing… no-thing!” says Andrew.
“At least, I would not say ‘at the end of the day’.”
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and I am still going over the same ideas. It feels faintly ridiculous, I confess. And Andrew lets me know it. He is a scientist for whom there is only behaviour modified by genetics and environment: out with all the rest, religion, philosophy, politics, the lot. Talking to him is a perpetual challenge because I have to be on guard not to fall into what he calls “woo”- religion-woo, poetry-woo, art-woo. Woo from the sound that gormless people make when they look up at the stars without a sufficiently analytical frame of mind. He is right about that, though I don’t see why scientists can’t come to terms with the idea that “woo” exists and then talk about it scientifically instead of adopting an offended moral tone like a maiden aunt with a slapped arse.
“Oh,” I add, “but say my programmed behaviour is just that. I do this stuff because my genetics and my environment predetermine that I will. You gonna cavil?”
“No, no,” he says, “but maybe there are other explanations you are not seeing. I’d be interested in the big data about the kinda batshit stuff you do and I think it would be more revealing than your self-justifications. Maybe the cereal you eat affects your brain chemistry.”
“To do what?”
“To spend two whole days reading poems into your computer. How do you explain that?”
“I explain it as an event in the life of reading.” I say. “Reading as a part of life, of my life anyhow, and that the questions that were posed long ago remain. I don’t see it any different to the working out of a pattern. I don’t mean me working it out. I mean there’s a pattern that works itself out.”
“The evolutionary purpose of it is what I’m interested in,” he says. “Like poetry is a kind of sexual display signal, but you are a bit old for that. Maybe you have a delayed response.”
“I don’t want to be snooty, Andrew, but that’s a lame explanation for artistic endeavour. You can’t come across as wise if you starting mouthing inanities. The thing is it’s not just about the poetry, the Olson…”
“Charles Olson. Pure woo. I’m sorry,” he intones with a sanctimonious expression on his face.
“… it’s more about the reading.”
“Reading as a pastime. After all you could read something serious like science. You could put some real effort in and learn some science, couldn’t you?”
I harrumph. We drink tea and pootle off into other areas of conversation. This is better, less antagonistic. We have both listened to the same podcast talking about why people are good. Why sacrifice yourself? It doesn’t seem to make evolutionary sense, but there is no question it happens. How do you explain altruism? (Without woo.) Anyway, it turns out there is a mathematical formula that predicts the degree of kinship and the degree possibility of self-sacrifice. It is, after all, not something you choose. It is genetics and environment: hidden forces, not the hero stories, the myths of creation, not even the history all written over and re-structured by cultural pattern-making. Awareness- the be-all and end-all of metaphysics from the Buddhists to Socrates- turns out to be awareness of what Andrew calls no-thing, as nonsensical in its way as saying God created the beauty of a flower.
“You can’t get around it,” he says, returning to the needling he was giving me, “if you want to know something, the old ways don’t cut it. Science.”
I mooch off into the garden and hoe the vegetable bed. “Come on,” I think. “Let’s get a dialogue going.”
“You can draw with a paintbrush,” said Peter, and Andrew pulled his coat around him tighter to keep out the Amsterdam cold. “The question is: how does the artist leave a trace? And, for us, how do we interpret the trace he has left?”
“In the 1970s,” Andrew said, “the computers that could tell you so much more about what you are had not been invented. Even so, if you wanted to learn about the universe, there were better places to look than re-runs of Star Trek and Egyptian mythology.”
Peter’s eyebrows go up. His hair looks like a bonnet with a straight fringe curving seamlessly over his brow down to cover his ears. “I don’t watch Star Trek,” he says. “And it’s not about computation, is it? It’s about perception. The data is not it. How you arrange the data, I mean.”
I butt in nervously, “In some ways it is. After all that connoisseurship- guys with cravats studying procedence and brushwork to determine authorship- we find that scientific examination of pigment, the support and micro particles on paint surfaces tell us all we want to know about who did what when and where. So, what is the point of the expert? All that study and so many of the conclusions wrong!”
“That may be true,” he says. “It still doesn’t explain why determining this painting is a genuine Rembrandt and that one not is so important.”
“It’s all woo,” says Andrew. “Value is what you peg onto an object after the fact. And all that crap about genius and work of genius is a kinda aristocratic notion of behaviour that we could easily find a better way of explaining.”
“Steady on,” I say, “that is sounding like a socio-political reading.”
“Let’s go in here,” says Peter and we enter a café stomping our feet. My glasses steam up instantly and I weave my way in a vague haze to the window stools where we perch and stare across the frozen canal as we wait for the waiter to come and take our order. Men with beards and moustaches in wide-bottomed trousers and thick-framed glasses guide women in scarves by the elbow across the tramlines. A tinny noise rattles from shitty speakers: don’t you love me, baby?
“Where is this all going?” Peter asks wearily.
“Unknowable,” Andrew replies.
“No, not that. I mean what you know. You’ve seen the twenty-first century. I wanna know what happens.”
“No nuclear war yet,” I say. “No moon separating from earth and floating off through space. But environmental catastrophe, yes. The world is heating up. It’s not just about the rainforests, though that is depressing enough. There are huge masses of plastic floating in the seas, the ice caps are melting. Everything is polluted. Worse than anything you lot predicted. There are too many of us and we consume too much, especially the rich, who are getting richer as the poor get poorer… et cetera. You know.”
“There has been massive technological and scientific advance,” puts in Andrew. “Scientists can change genes to eliminate disease and make crops grow better. Everyone carries a communicator like Captain Kirk which has more computing power than those behemoths that put man into space. There is the internet- a web connecting all of these devices- that has democratised knowledge. Communication is changing the world.”
“Art?” a plaintive Peter asks.
“Going the way of religion,” says Andrew.
“Don’t have the statistics, but church-going will die out in the next generation. A basic human drive towards woo means that there is always some other bollocks popping up, but priests, churches and congregations are literally on their last legs.”
“Universities have seen a massive drop in admissions to arts courses,” I say. “In any case, what we used to talk about- transformative experiences, paradigm shifts, deep meanings- has all withered on the vine. Students pay to go to university and have to make money when they get out to pay off their debts. Art has always been a business, I guess. Maybe what we lived through was an historical burp.”
A waft of marijuana comes across the room from a group of twenty-somethings reclining
on a couch in the corner. We close our eyes as the tinny speakers sing: “So-ho-ho, so you think you can tell… heaven from hell…”
“Good music in the seventies,” says Andrew.
“The Stones,” says Peter.
“Schubert,” say I.
They both look at me and intone “weirdo” sotto voce at the same time.
“Fair enough,” I say. “You guys can go off to your concerts, pay a shit-pile of money for your tickets and travel and cruddy hotel room. You can get all jazzed up with sentimental reveries, touching the pleasure centres in that special area of the neo-cortex where nostalgia buttons are hidden. Whatever you scientifically or artistically like to call it. I on the other hand read poetry and go for long walks- to the same effect.”
I walk out and leave them there. They seem happy.