Artful (Part One)

One dictionary definition of art describes it as “the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words”. 

You can’t argue with that, of course, but it’s a faintly lacklustre description of what seems to me a magical process. (By magical, I don’t mean anything supernatural. Nature herself is plenty deep enough for me.) So I sat down, contemplated and came up with words to finish a sentence beginning Art is …

Art is … 

celebration	   empathy	    example	      acknowledgment
clarification      preservation	    representation    remembrance
focus		   transformation   symbolism         vision
refuge	           escape           relief            rescue
vision             affirmation      assertion         critique
play               consolation      exorcism          purging
purification       journey          confession        exploration
adventure          creation         mystery           completion
record             analysis         synthesis         experiment
therapy            weapon           touchstone        composition
meeting            bridge	    mirror            reflection
sharing            contribution     warning           recommendation
conversation       spur             signpost          rallying-cry
prophesy           manifesto        subversion        provocation
illumination       healer           argument          questioning
collaboration      catalyst         explanation       unique

Great art can be all of these things. No wonder creative people are prepared to go through agonies to produce something worthwhile. But following your own inner promptings while keeping your eye on the subject and your ear tuned to the expectations of an audience is a juggling act which requires psychological stamina and deep determination.

A big ask.

But artists aren’t superhuman – very often their expressive ability is rooted in misfortune and injustice, their human frailty the source of strength. The struggle against mute power, says philosophical novelist Milan Kundera, is the struggle of a theatre group that has attacked an army. This is an almost comic version of the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword.

But it’s also a heroic image. Art embodies the hope that we aren’t helpless – something can be done.

My previous post, featuring an unbelieving Philip Larkin reflecting on religion to draw fresh conclusions, suggests that cultures can merge to create something new. A paradox – art is nothing if not original but grows best when nourished by tradition. Someone commented that today’s European churches were often built on the sites of ancient temples and I replied that many were dedicated to gods of healing – perhaps our new temples are the medical centres, sources of endless antibiotics.

As to our spiritual needs – answers to big questions like Who am I? – we have modern-gothic malls to bestow the dubious blessings of consumer identity. I shop, therefore I am?

But there’s trouble in paradise. Shop till you drop becomes Shop till you drop the climate in a hole it can’t clamber out of … and this, I like to think, is where art appears at the top of the hill like the cavalry to the rescue. Or is it the Commanches?

Hang on, our movie seems to have jumped forward a few reels … let’s wind back a bit!

Ha, look, that’s me in a walk-on role! I play the part of a free-thinker who has a tendency to get himself lost. Being in love with words doesn’t help – chasing fine phrases down ridiculous rabbit-holes butters no parsnips, as nobody said to anyone ever. I never know what I want to do until I’ve done it and consequently am the world’s worst procrastinator … or else a close second to this chap!

Image result for AA Milne shipwrecked sailor

To see AA Milne’s poem about the poor fellow, click on

Where was I? All over the shop, as usual, and whenever shop-assistants start to hover I tell them Just browsing … you too, huh? Hmm, going into shops without buying anything could be the new agitprop – “political propaganda promulgated chiefly in literature, drama, music, or art” – but would anybody notice? I suppose you’d have to combine it with requests for impossible objects – gold-plated cycle-clips in honour of Philip Larkin, perhaps?

By the way, Larkin has form when it comes to supplanting religion with art:


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin’s tone is ironic but the beauty of the final image suggests a serious intention. It is open-ended, inviting the reader in to wonder … or wander! The poem steers clear of religion’s didacticism and enters a more democratic artistic space. I am reminded of the campaign to bring pure drinking water to the world’s poor and its unforgettable images:

Image result for children at water taps

In trying to create my own artistic space, I’m encouraged by novelist Richard Ford’s words:

I’ve always tried to abide by EM Forster’s famous dictum … that … fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life”. To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalisations about as the people we actually meet every day … I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost’s advice meant specifically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.

I’m drawn to this because I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. Does he mean, be mature but don’t forget to have fun? Is he saying, go for realism but leave room for fantasy? Maybe the message is that rules are there to be broken – there’s no progress without contraries, says William Blake.

But are Ford’s two principles really opposed? I suspect that a childlike point of view – immune to cliché, where the merely childish are wholly susceptible to it – would appreciate ” the incalculability of life”. When once we start to reduce the “variegated and vivid” and content ourselves with stereotype, we lose our appetite for life. This is where all the trouble starts …

I’m well aware that the artist in me is wary of making generalisations, where my inner preacher can’t get enough of them. A friend of mine once said I had a “shopping-trolley mind” by which he meant that I pull ideas off the shelves at random like a lucky winner in a supermarket sweep.  You may have more ingredients than anyone else, he said, but they may not add up to a successful meal.

Ah well, time to empty this particular shopping bag and see what I can serve up in Part Two … maybe a tip or two on turning a million and one ideas into something tasty and satisfying. Just don’t expect me to have a shopping list.

And in defence of my somewhat round-the-houses approach, I’ll end with some curiously encouraging words from writer George Saunders:

Intention does not make good art.



Image result for race round supermarket


Image: Mirror


9 thoughts on “Artful (Part One)

  1. Interesting thoughts! I love your list — it accurately describes Art. Funny about AA Milne, I mentioned Winnie and Christopher Robin to another blogger today. Which must mean some cosmic thought process and connection, hmmm…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent thoughts. I have just begun to really appreciate the art of writing and other forms of art that help maintain my sanity. I’m sure it’s nice to have the time to think and write. I know now how important this is for me to do. I thank you for what you have shared.


    1. Thank you for reading and replying. I’m sure art is a refuge and healer in difficult times. I also want to make it a more central part of my life so this is a very personal quest for me.


  3. Wow, Dave, a pyrotechnic display of words. Art is all of the above, and surprise. Something that encourages us to think in a new way, to fight against the dullness and prejudice of a life continually repeated. The beauty of youth is its willingness to see a world of opportunity and the willingness to explore, a tendency that all too often is driven out of us. Great post. –Curt


  4. Indeed, Curt, all too easy to go to sleep before we have to … I think Picasso got it right when he said that every child is an artist but the problem is remaining artists when we grow up!


  5. Great piece and shows the depth of your study. Nice to be able to bring Blake, Larkin, Ford, Milne and Saunders to the same table. I like the metaphor of the shopping cart. Looking forward to an unpredictable dinner in part 2!

    Liked by 1 person

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