Saturday, 23 February 2013

So, What's New?

According to a newspaper article I read, there is a plan to tap the geothermal currents under Glasgow and use them as a source of heating for the city. The headline ought to have been "Free Heating from Sustainable, Natural Resources" but instead it focussed on the supposed novelty of the idea which, as any half-fledged eco-warrior will know, is laughable: factories in Finland, cities in Scandinavia and practically the whole of Iceland have been doing it since the fifties. Why are we so late in adopting what appears to be a sensible idea? Cynics will be quick to answer that vested interests - the power companies - are protecting profits from free or cheap sources of energy. Sympathisers, on the other hand, will have devised a convoluted economic justification.

A third possible explanation is that this is a classic example of our tendency to 'start from scratch': those foreigners may have had a good idea but, since it's not ours, we'll ignore it and find one of our own. Humans have been discovering things ever since brain capacity evolved but corresponding collaborative action has been sporadic. The net result is an incoherent jumble of socio-political theories and a profusion of conflicting economic activities. Will the incremental accumulation of human knowledge ever coalesce into a consensus of  what is best for humanity? Or will each new generation continue to behave as if it had nothing to learn from its predecessors? I fear the latter.

And yet, in art there is hope: it is evident that artists, musicians, poets and writers are less afraid to acknowledge the influences of previous generations and other minds. Artistic traditions and styles once rigidly conformist have become more fluid as our different cultures mingle in the global market-square. And this is a process which is accelerating in sync with communications technology. The work of artists from pre-history is the earliest evidence of civilisation that we can see, but it is far from primitive. When Picasso first beheld the wonderfully preserved, 40,000 year-old paintings in the caves of Monte Castillo, so astonished was he by their spare but perfect accomplishment that he said "I have been wasting my time" (or words to that effect). In a way he was right: that particular form had reached perfection, yet he continued to find new ways of expressing life as art - to the amazement and delight of his expanding audience.

The willingness of artists to absorb the influences of others and incorporate them into their own distinctive creations was something I noticed this week at the Whitworth gallery, where the mountains of Snowdonia are the subjects both of an exhibition of classic watercolours from the museum's historic collection and of a series of 1940s paintings by John Piper displayed in the adjoining space. The earlier works are exquisite in their execution and comprise some of the best examples of landscape painting from their period: in that sense, they may be considered to be conventional. Piper's works, on the other hand, are more experimental. Made with a mix of watercolour, gouache and inked lines, they are less eidetic. I would have been interested to see photography as a third element of the exhibition so as to appreciate its special contribution to the story
Nevertheless, having walked often in these mountains, I found myself recognising some of the places and some of the feelings - in so far as they can be visually expressed. But, over and above that, what struck me was the way that great art strives to express itself without conceit or vanity. In doing so it holds out hope that mankind is capable of coming together in some kind of mutually beneficial consensus. Art, in this respect, trumps all of our other activities and proves the point simply by being the oldest trace of human civilisation.


Graham said...

Eidetic eh? They speak of little else down our street.

Joe Holdsworth said...

What a cultured lot they are!