I’m sitting with Peter on a bench in the shape of pi. Two volunteers made it last year from some discarded oak beams we discovered in the accumulated detritus of the barn clear out. The view from here looks out to the mountains where strange trees seem to clamber up the steep slopes against the grey cut-out of distant peaks.
“You can draw with a paintbrush,” says Peter.
“You’ve said that before,” I reply. “What does it mean? A Rembrandt ink-drawing with a paintbrush: do you get anywhere saying it is a drawing not a painting? Aren’t they just words?”
“It’s not just the words. It’s not just putting things in boxes. The way you think affects the way you look. If you look this way or that, you see something different. And what you see affects what you do.”
“Give me an example.”
“Why do you think boobs-in-gardens Russian paintings are crap? They show a limp, low-grade macho reading of the world. The compositions are predictable. The colours make your teeth hurt. They may be technically proficient, but the vision is all wrong, isn’t it?”
“Well,” says Peter, warming to his theme, “If you think of a painting as something that hangs in a frame in a home full of tack, you have opened the door to the possibility of that kind of crap. If you think of a drawing as pencil on paper with cross-hatching and tonal shading, the same. The failure of the Russian booby painters is that they are so conventional. Try painting with a stick. Try drawing with a paintbrush. To draw with a paintbrush is to smudge the boundaries of genre and challenge the idea of mere technique, of mere proficiency, which is, after all, no substitute for a better way of seeing, a truer vision.”
“So,” I say, “the unifying idea behind the statement ‘you can draw with a paintbrush’ is that hierarchies and genres are asking to be transgressed?”
“It is the great triumph of our age. Anything that whiffs of old certainties starts to stink.”
“Yeah, OK,” I say, “But bringing it back to reading, I find something authoritarian about the Triumph of the New.”
“I’m not sure I get that at all. How can breaking down hierarchies suddenly be authoritarian. That doesn’t make sense.”
Peter is offended that I contradict him. I can see his eyes open a little wider and he purses his lips. He has to defend his positions not only in front of classes of obnoxious kids whose parents can’t see the point of Art but in staff meetings where the subject is routinely dismissed as an extravagant waste of time and money. He justifies it by pulling out blockbuster end-of-term shows where the kiddies show off their creativity and the school wallows in the glow of appreciative visitors. He is used to seeing the artist as a rebel, not as an authoritarian.
“Go bigger,” he tells them and the joyful young artists splash out the paint over acres of paper. “Draw with your fingers. Draw with a paintbrush.”
“It’s not your fault,” I add. “And I am sure the kids and their parents enjoy the splurge of creativity. But creativity sucks. I’m not sure I go along with it.”
He bristles some more. “Now you are just being wilfully obtuse. Creativity is the ground from which all the rest springs.”
Amsterdam is a long way distant.
In Amsterdam, the trams clanged past pedestrians who nimbly hopped from cobbles to pavement. A fierce wind blew in from the east whipping around the side of buildings to suck the air from my mouth, but I was seventeen and the cold was nothing to me. I gazed in rapt attention at the patterns of the bare-branched trees against the aluminium sky thinking of Carel Weight and Stanley Spencer. I had filled my head with so much junk that I was unable to look at one thing without thinking of another. And worse than that I seemed to be getting good marks for doing just that.
School was appalling. It was a Vanity Fair of venal teachers inflicting their half-arsed judgements on teenagers who were aching for the life beyond the window. A soggy blanket descended over us. It was mediocrity. Life was a slow slog through a giant bowl of treacle, the gooey substance sucking back each forward step and wafting up a sweet nauseating odour. Cocking a snook, I turned to Communism to throw in the faces of the bourgeois bores who tried to define my reading, but I was as venal as they were: I had been sucked into the dreary mark-getting game; I was a sucker for tests and exams. “This will show them,” I thought to myself, without a trace of self-awareness or irony as I did my last-minute cramming for the tests to show you could pass without studying.
School was the death of reading. “Will this come up in the exam?” was a question of vital importance.
Amsterdam pulled reading forward to the front plane. Posturing was irrelevant once you had touched your face and felt the skull beneath the flesh whilst looking at a vanitas painting in the Rijksmuseum. The women could come and go, but the reading would be there forever after.