Just before Christmas I flung a star into space. It was not a vast thermonuclear ball of gas and plasma, but a small thing, some three feet across, made of five willow sticks, an LED rope and lots and lots of short pieces of green, garden twine. Neither did it get very far into space: I tied it to a willow pole and tied that in turn to the willow arch at the bottom of the garden, so it was about twelve to fifteen feet off the ground. But on cloudless nights it seemed to simply hang there, glowing white in the darkness. I was pleased with it, partly because I had made it, partly because it was pretty, even (I hesitate here) beautiful. It made me laugh. But was it art?
It turns out that is a difficult question. I am sure it was creative, in some degree, given that I cut the willow and spent an evening knotting short pieces of green, garden twine. Can I go any further than that? Can I distinguish that star from the even longer thread of LED lights I draped around the front garden? Because they were also pretty.
I think I can; because, while lights in the garden are lovely, a star at Christmas time is a symbol, and, like any symbol, speaks of something other than itself. So my star, hanging in the darkness, is the signifier and echo of that other, more mysterious star that announced the messiah and the coming of the Kingdom of God. (If I had made a reindeer it would have spoken not of redemption, but of Santa and of magic and getting more stuff.)
I have previously adopted a crab-like approach to this question of what art is, but I am now going to come out and state very bluntly that art is fundamentally about language (hear me, language, which is not the same as speech or words) and about communicating emotion, or rather what R G Collingwood refers to as the ‘emotional charge’. This is not quite ‘how I feel’, as emotions are too primal for sharing directly, but is the ‘power’ of the emotion, which can then be experienced by another person.
This can work at a small scale, one poem or one line of verse (try Housman’s Shropshire Lad for that). It can also work at the huge scale. If you want to get a sense of what it was like to live and think as a mediaeval, western Christian read Dante’s Divine Comedy: you won’t agree with all the theology, but you will get the sense of living in a universe in which God is in his heaven, but all is not right with the world. A universe where people do good and bad things (even the supposedly religious – Dante puts plenty of popes in hell) for short sighted reasons and face consequences. Dante puts that world inside you. There are even (and this may be pushing it, but I’m willing to shove) points in the Old Testament which give us a sense of what it is like to be God. This conveying of emotion can, even in a very small way, take place through a star hanging in the Christmas dark.
Given that art comes out of our emotions, then whatever we write, make, paint, film, draw, dance, move and speak, is going to be rooted in our world of experience; the phenomena, people and things that surround us. But the world is in a bad way. Theologically, I am a pretty poor Calvinist, but I know enough to be aware that ‘total depravity’ refers to all departments being messed up, rather than absolutely everything being messed up. Not everything is bad, but everything is affected.
So we get the English country house, but we also get the slave trade. We get baroque music, architecture and painting, but we get the inquisitions, anti-catholic laws and anti-semitism. We get Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, but our viewing of the painting is affected by knowing she was raped by one of her father’s students who was acquitted, probably because Pope Innocent X protected him.
We live with the conflict within ourselves and our task as artists is to communicate our experience of that, to convey what it feels like to be in a world where there is joy and distress, beauty and abomination. Any work that shirks that is merely advertising.
Was that my star? No, I don’t think so. The star speaks of redemption, but that is only required because of the darkness surrounding it.
‘How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’
(Portia, Merchant of Venice)