A Liberal Education is a Self-Reflexive Education: Defining the Liberal Arts

Many terms are thrown around to define a liberal education. The most common one, I’ve found—at least within universities—is to contrast the “artes liberales” (the liberal arts, or those studies done for their own sake) with the “artes serviles” (‘servile’ arts, or those done out of necessity), as Rome passed the distinction down to us.

I don’t think that definition does much good, and in many cases it might be actively harmful. The single greatest contributor to the education that students receive and which faculty aim to impart is the way that our education is described and discussed; this, because when so many ends of an education are presented to us, we will gravitate towards those talked about most often. So when we define liberal education with reference to that liberal-servile dichotomy, we introduce all sorts of out-dated and anachronistic implications for education today—not least the idea that liberal arts students should not ‘taint’ themselves with ‘worldly’ or ‘servile’ concerns. This definition for the most part simply does not apply to liberal education in the twenty-first century.

The other common definition given is in some ways the opposite of the liberal-servile distinction, and it is to talk about some unique characteristics of liberal arts colleges: “small class sizes”, “residential colleges”, “learning how to think”, “breadth and depth”, and so on. In some ways this definition works, because it does conjure in our minds the idea of what makes a liberal arts college distinct to large research universities, for instance. But on the whole the definition is useless, because it gives students nothing to aim at in our education, and gives faculty nothing to impart: a liberal education is simply defined, here, by institutional structures. Even more than that, the definition is time-limited and in many cases geographically limited too—not all of these aspects are unique to a liberal education. They are by and large the distinct aspects of American liberal arts colleges from the mid twentieth century to the present day.

So where are we left? Is liberal education left forever in the realm of the undefinable, with every new book presenting a different definition? Besides, would clarity through a neat definition reduce what liberal education could mean to different students, somehow limiting us?

A Self-Reflexive Education

I’ve come to define a liberal education as a self-reflexive education. Self-reflexivity is, to my mind, the heart of a liberal education, its feature that is both timeless and common to all countries’ traditions and institutional structures (it shows, too, how a liberal education does not require an institution to be achieved). It is a definition that works not by negating other forms of education, as in the liberal-servile distinction, and nor does it refer to specificities of a liberal arts college in its definition. Here, liberal education is separated from the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges; and, most importantly, understanding liberal education as a self-reflexive education gives students and educators alike something to aim at—it gives us a bigger picture, a bird’s-eye view of ourselves even while we are in the midst of our education.

What does self-reflexivity really mean in relation to a liberal education? What makes a liberal education unique is that one has the freedom to critique and question one’s education even while in the middle of it. Instead of a unidirectional transfer of knowledge, liberal education always has a cycle embedded within, whereby students try to understand what we are learning from broader systems and structures, even if that means questioning and trying to understand the very system of education of which we are a part. It could mean something as small as discussing with a professor a given book or reading to understand its broader context (in which case one is self-reflexive about what else there is to learn and understand); or, at its broadest level, it might mean reading and writing intensely on education itself, seeking to understand what structures shape our education as a whole.

The latter aspect of the self-reflexivity of a liberal education can be seen clearly at almost all liberal arts colleges by the fact that the educational institution itself is one of the most frequent topics of conversation among students and faculty. In my experience, we students always want to see and understand clearly the institution of which we are a part, and then quite often to change it, which means we believe in the power to change the circumstances of our own education. This is the self-reflexivity in action: seeing education at its broadest level, and attempting to see one’s present situation within it—and then, quite often, setting out to alter that situation in order to improve what we’re learning and, ultimately, to improve ourselves.

For Example

Taking rigorous notes in a seminar or a lecture, going away later to study them and then remembering them during an exam is not a liberal education. Reflecting on why we have lectures, seminars and exams, how they help us to learn, and what other systems we might have is a liberal education.

Reading a book because a professor assigned it is not a liberal education. Asking why your professor assigned it, and what else they might have assigned instead, is.

Criticising your professor or your university for assigning a given book (perhaps one that reinforces old or dangerous stereotypes) is not a liberal education. Discussing openly in class the value and harms of reading and discussing such a book is.

Writing an essay that you don’t want to write for no other reason than that the syllabus says you need to is not a liberal education. Talking to your professor about what essay you do want to write, and why you should be allowed to write it, is fit for a liberal education.

Thinking your education ends when you graduate may indeed mean you have had an education, but it doesn’t mean you’ve had a liberal education. You’ve only had a liberal education when your high school and college years are seen as the foundations of a life of learning. (Yale’s famous report of 1828 put this: “The Object is not to finish (the student’s) education, but to lay the foundation and to advance as far in rearing the superstructure as the short period of (their) residence here will admit.”

A Metaphor for the Self-Reflexivity of Liberal Education

Las Meninas Liberal Education Self-Reflexive Education

In the first ever lecture I attended at Yale-NUS College (a lecture itself on the nature of a liberal education, during orientation week) my professor spoke about Velásquez’ painting Las Meninas. Typically of an education, four years on I now feel the description was largely lost on me at the time. But it must have done some good to still remain with me now. I remember Professor Rajeev Patke speaking about Modernity, and the rise of self-reflexivity in art and literature: the focus, in Velásquez seventeenth century, gradually moved away from faithful representation of the world as we see it and towards representation of subjective experience. In Las Meninas, Velásquez depicts himself standing before a large canvas which he is painting, but we cannot see what he is depicting; to the figure’s right is a mirror upon the wall, which reflects two figures (themselves outside the scene depicted). Las Meninas becomes an image of self-reflexivity: the painter stands both within and without the canvas he is painting; he gazes forward at his work as his hand creates it, but upon seeing himself reflected there is led to an inevitable and a perpetual reflection about the very nature of the activity he is engaged in. Much like an education—and especially like the process of a liberal education.

But why then should you pursue a liberal education?

The definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education should by now hopefully be clear, but the question remains: why should you pursue it?

You should pursue a liberal education because it provides you with, to use the Yale report’s term, the “superstructure” of lifelong learning. It furnishes you with the “discipline and furniture” of the mind, so that almost nothing throughout life is beyond your intellectual powers. It gives you the freedom to know you can come to know everything, most of all yourself.

You should pursue a liberal education because it allows you to understand not just any one thing, but rather what is common to all things. It gives you a bird’s eye view from which to see the world and any activity you’re engaged in.

Pragmatically, it changes your time at high school or university. When you have the mindset of seeking a liberal education, there are very few things you must do. Rather, you start to see how you can twist every assignment and every class to get exactly what you feel you need out of them.

Far from seeing your education as something to get through, when you pursue a liberal education you start to see your education as something enabling you to get to something else. Your four years at college or university are just the beginning of a life of being able to learn anything and everything you want to learn.

Should I mention grades? Well, only to say that it will likely do your grades no harm to be reflexive about your education and to go about it as an adventure. Professors surely prefer to teach students who are engaged and who know what they want to learn, students who write essays not because they have to write them but because there are ideas they want to test and to figure out.

Do you need to go to a liberal arts college to get a liberal education?

In short: no. I maintain that you can get a liberal education from within any institution, or even through self-learning alone. What matters is merely that you desire an education, and that you are self-reflective about the process of going about it, seeking always what you know you need to get out of it.

But, in saying that, I firmly believe going to a liberal arts college will make it much easier, and will offer aspects of an education that you simply cannot gain elsewhere. A professor who has helped me more than anyone else to understand the nature of a liberal education describes the experience of being at a liberal arts college by using Emile Durkheim’s term: “collective effervescence”. The experience of being in a “living and learning community” with hundreds of other students and professors all committed to exactly the same end is unlike anything else. You’ve all read the same key books, so can discuss with anyone, during any mealtime, any idea you happen to be thinking about. And, if you’re all equally self-reflexive about your education, a depth of insight is enabled. There’s an emotional and an intellectual seriousness which I believe comes from being a part of such a living and learning community.

Why the definition matters

Does the definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education merely restrict what an education could be? Might it hinder more than it helps, or might it miss too many facets of a liberal education to prove useful?

I believe the definition is valuable because it restores education to being about the individual. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then, by definition, only you can get yourself an education, and only I can get myself one. The definition allows us to escape whatever we might dislike about the institution of which we are a part, and to escape even many of the outdated strictures of national education systems which encourage mindless conformity more than anything else. It makes an education all about us, as individuals: and it pushes us to continually challenge ourselves, seeking always a deeper and a greater understanding of our own lives and the world around us. A self-reflexive education is, after all, one that encourages above all the Greek dictum to “know thyself”.

The definition does a number of other valuable things, such as:

  • Avoiding reductive dichotomies between a ‘worldly’ education for your career, and one for self-cultivation, for your inner life. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then what matters more than whether what you learn serves your career or your soul is whether you are reflective about what you’re wanting out of your education, and how there might be other ends to it.
  • It links us back in a long tradition to most of the key philosophers and theorists of education: to Plato, to Cicero, to Augustine, to Kongzi and Ibn Tufayl, to Newman and Mill, Humboldt and Dewey. Not all of these thinkers wrote about ‘liberal education’, but they did all deal with how we can understand the process of education, its ends, and how we can pursue it.
  • It gives us a means of determining the kinds of activities within an education that are appropriate to the kind of education called ‘liberal’. For instance, pure training in a skill or a book is not appropriate to a liberal education unless it reflects on the ends of learning that skill or reading that book. Merely rote-learning for an exam may have educational value, but unless we are reflexive about that process as part of our education, it doesn’t have value as a liberal education.

Implications of a self-reflexive education

Most of all, understanding a liberal education as a self-reflexive education allows us to ignore those aspects of our education done for tradition and institutional requirements alone, and to restore the focus to our own individual experience of an education. Nothing matters but this: that we get out of our education what we need. This applies both to students, and to educators.

Should institutions choose to adopt this understanding of liberal education I believe it would provide much-needed clarity on what ends, subjects, and activities are appropriate to such an education. It may also give, at a time when liberal education’s value is often questioned, a way of responding to critics by escaping dangerous dichotomies like the liberal-servile one.

But ultimately, understanding the self-reflexivity of a liberal education is about you and me, and our own place within an educational institution. Whatever the institution does or does not do then matters far less in the process of getting out of an education what we need from it.

The Eyes and Times of Frank and Lyn Corner

Frank Lyn Corner New Zealand Art Collection Art+Object

This essay was published in the catalogue of The Collection of Frank and Lyn Corner by Art + Object. My grandparents’ significant collection of New Zealand art was presented to the market on Sunday 18th March 2018.


Growing up with Frank and Lyn as parents and grandparents meant growing roots firmly in New Zealand, no matter where in the world we happened to be. Our eyes became tuned, through the art, books and conversation that surrounded us, to see New Zealand as a firm part of the modern international world, holding its own from the bottom of the South Pacific.

But this view of New Zealand’s place in the world wasn’t always so clear for Frank and Lyn. Their backgrounds—in 1920s and 30s Napier for Frank, and Hamilton, Masterton, and Whanganui for Lyn—were happy but not remarkable ones, apart from a very memorable earthquake and considerable academic self-discipline. Frank always maintained that “Life, for me, began when I came to Wellington.”

It has even been said that, in the 1940s—when Frank and Lyn came to Wellington, met, and started discovering art together—New Zealand didn’t exist yet: “it remains to be created—should I say invented—–by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help”, went Curnow’s cry in 1945. That period between when New Zealand “didn’t exist yet”, and now, when New Zealand seems to stand upright here and when we can travel abroad, to Venice, to see our emissaries, is the period of Frank and Lyn’s lives.

When we stand amidst Frank and Lyn’s lifelong collection of artworks, in their lifelong home, we view a record of that invention of New Zealand, a visual and a personal history of New Zealand’s declaration of intellectual independence.

It is not the only record, and nor is it the largest; Frank and Lyn certainly never set out to create a survey collection, and in fact they long resisted entirely the idea that they were “collectors”. But theirs is a unique collection, and a significant one, because of the two sets of eyes that created it—and, as Frank and Lyn would be the first to point out, because of the sheer good fortune of the times that they happened to live in. Through this collection, and in the lives of Frank and Lyn, we see the abundance of New Zealand life.

— — — —

First, the eyes. Frank and Lyn always spoke of “having [their] eyes opened” to the world, and to art, during their years studying at Victoria University. From the time they met in 1941, at the Easter Tournament, theirs was a partnership of minds and of eyes. In their library one can see the intellectual efforts of their university years and of those afterwards. Frank was studying history, and Lyn French; but their books show little of this, so widely did they read. They studied the classics, but seemingly in equal measure would pick up all the latest books that arrived in Wellington from overseas (Forster’s What I Believe, for instance, they found as soon as it arrived, and his case for “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” seems to define Frank and Lyn’s outlook).

The great good fortune of Frank and Lyn’s university years was the intellectual stimulation provided by John Beaglehole and the circle of faculty and students he surrounded himself with. Their first invitation to the Beaglehole house in Messines Road, Karori, was also the occasion of their awakening to art. There, Lyn later recounted, “He [Beaglehole] had art hanging on the walls—including some of the very early breakthrough artists like John Weeks, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. This was different from the tame drawing-room landscapes we’d seen before, and excited us.” It seems important to remember in this context, however, that art was always just a part of Frank and Lyn’s education and of their lives. Frank describes the kind of discussion they would have at the Beagleholes’ house:

“On some occasions he would play Bach’s preludes and fugues, share his delight in newly acquired paintings of John Weeks or Woollaston, or pewter plates, or great examples of typography, or would introduce us to the works of E. M. Forster, or Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.”

The Beaglehole influence extended through the full range of culture that Curnow described as necessary for the invention of New Zealand, down to architects, and even politicians. Frank and Lyn were later to copy the Beagleholes in their commissioning architect Cedric Firth to design modern cabinetry for their 1930s house; and it was likely in Messines Road that they first heard of the arrival of a distinguished Austrian architect, Ernst Plischke, to Wellington. Frank was intrigued; he arranged for Plishke to give a series of public talks, and they got to know one another. Plischke would later design the modernist pavilion across the garden from the Gray Young-designed, Cedric Firth-renovated house that Frank and Lyn lived in for the best part of their lives.

The Beagleholes and the Corners remained lifelong friends, but after graduating from Victoria in 1942 and joining the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1943 Frank soon began travelling, and the couple continued their informal education overseas. Frank was one of the first to visit postwar Japan in late 1945, and Frank and Lyn both worked in Paris for several months in 1946 during the Peace Conference. Postings took them to Washington D.C. twice, to London and New York. They read widely and kept everything. In their attic are boxes of gallery catalogues, many in French, that they collected while haunting the galleries during their travels.

— — — —

And then there were the times they lived in—times so full of activity and excitement, in both art and world affairs, that from the perspective of grandchildren in 2018 they seemed always to be in the very middle of history in the making. They were in London for the Queen’s coronation, the same day Edmund Hillary summited Mount Everest; they were in New York during the fraught days of the Cuban Missile Crisis; they were in Washington D.C. when Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand, with Frank overseeing the visit. Yet this was work and everyday life for this diplomatic couple, however thrilling it all may seem from a perspective half a century later.

The upheavals going on in the world of art were almost as grand and exciting as those happening in world affairs, so much so that Lyn later described art during this period being an “automatic, easy addiction.” They certainly appreciated their good fortune to live in London, New York and Washington during these formative decades. While Frank was busy at the United Nations, Lyn would head to the galleries, often with two young children in tow. In London, it was during a brief lunch break that Frank dropped by the Redfern Gallery and returned with Frances Hodgkins’ Pleasure Boat.

As with their eyes, for which art was just one of many great passions, the times they lived in seem to have blurred the boundaries between work and other parts of life. The eyes and the times are one and the same, in the end: so that social and political changes are reflected in the art they bought, and the art they bought influenced diplomatic and political advances. When Lyn was once asked if they had consciously bought artworks that would serve to represent New Zealand well abroad, she rejected any such idea: “We simply purchased the irresistible.” We have to take that statement at face value; and yet Frank and Lyn knew that the art they bought would be the backdrop to so many diplomatic functions, and that art has a unique power to represent and to find commonality. We have always thought of Lyn’s comment as a sign of how inseparable their lives were from the times they lived in, the work they did for New Zealand, and their passion for art, books, music and architecture. What was irresistible to Frank and Lyn Corner, a couple who spent their lives serving New Zealand abroad, was precisely the kind of art that represented the modern, confident and vibrant country they represented and spoke about to countless dignitaries every day.

So when Frank wrote in 1962 that “…for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth-century NZ turned its eyes away from the Pacific”, this was at once a statement of foreign policy and of national and personal outlook. He went on: “Has not a country become in some way unbalanced when it knows little and cares less about its own geographic environment?” He argued over many years, after New Zealand’s two great twentieth century crises—the fall of Singapore, and Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community—that our future lay in this part of the world, in the Pacific. He made this argument formally for New Zealand’s foreign policy; but it was the argument that increasingly our writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers, and, yes, even our politicians, were formulating in their own realms. For Frank Corner, the search for national security was also a part of the search for national and cultural identity.

— — — —

In the minds of diplomats one’s country can paradoxically seem closer while living in a foreign capital, for it is while there that your everyday experience is marked entirely by your nationality. You are only in Washington, London or New York by virtue of being a New Zealander; you only meet people as a New Zealander. In many ways you live through your country’s identity, and are forced to understand on a deep level what it is that you are representing. This seems different from the expatriate’s experience: he or she goes abroad by their own volition, and for the duration that they are away from home they are more or less cut off from home. They are expatrias. The point is the great extent to which Frank and Lyn’s life experiences were marked by being New Zealanders and, in turn, how their vision for New Zealand affected their art collecting.

To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view. Now we today inhabit the New Zealand that was created and invented during their lifetimes. To look at the individual works in this collection is to see a New Zealand coming to its modernity, coming to terms with its geography, and coming to understand its identity. But to look at this collection as a whole: well, that is to see the modern, vibrant, educated Pacific New Zealand that we now know. To look at this collection is to see the abundance of New Zealand life.

Rita Angus

Rita Angus New Zealand Artist Hawkes Bay
Rita Angus, Storm, Hawkes Bay, c.1969. (Private Collection, copyright held by Rita Angus Estate)

Of all New Zealand’s early modernists, Rita Angus’ paintings are perhaps the easiest to love. It was her 1936 oil Cass, after all—that quintessential image of the lonely comings-and-goings of rural New Zealand, mundane, everyday journeys carried out amidst the unique transcendence of God’s Own peaks—that was voted to be this country’s most loved painting. But in a country looking for not just an art but an art history of its own, the art has never quite been enough; it was not just a New Zealand art we were looking for, but mythologies of New Zealand artists. That role was the one Rita Angus steadfastly refused to play. And so today New Zealanders find themselves in the position of having three great New Zealand artists, but not knowing what to make of the third. Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, and Rita Angus—Angus last in the list, separated by the Oxford comma, as if we didn’t quite know where she belonged.

Though her artworks were increasingly recognised and loved during her lifetime, Rita Angus herself remained to the end an enigmatic figure, sitting as solitary and isolated from the country’s burgeoning ‘art world’ as the figure in her Cass. She could be peevish, even to her closest friends and family. Douglas Lillburn, her one-time lover and long-time friend and neighbour, often found himself mediating on her behalf with those her brooding letters had left in disbelief. Art dealers and museum curators, far from being an exception, often bore the brunt of her fretful letters, and for this her reputation likely suffered. She never did have a dealer, but sold most of her early works through The Group, bastion of early modernism in Christchurch, and her later works mostly to select visitors to her Thorndon cottage in Wellington. When she died in 1970, aged 62, the bulk of her artistic output remained in her studio.

Perhaps some of the peevishness was personality. More likely, it was the result of the obstinateness that her choice of vocation forced upon her. For it has never been easy to be a woman painter—but to be a divorced woman painter intent upon modernism in what could then still be a conservative backwater was an altogether different challenge. Angus’ portraiture provides a fascinating record of the self-image required to proceed, let alone to succeed, in such an environment. Her Self-portrait of 1936-7 shows her standing strong and defiant, left arm raised as she clutches a cigarette in cool nonchalance as her right hand drapes a green beret over the opposite arm; but she may as well be holding Holofernes’ head by his hair, such is the strength of mind the picture conveys. A decade later and Angus painted A Goddess of Mercy, its central figure bearing distinctly ‘Rita’ features. This is an image of a woman at one with the world—deer nuzzle against her, birds swoop in harmony, mountains and farmland mirror themselves either side. This is a picture of strength, too, but strength borne from a unifying compassion. “As a woman painter”, Angus would write, “I work to represent love of humanity and faith in mankind in a world, which is to me, richly variable, infinitely beautiful”.

Angus was a modernist painter, one of the earliest this country can boast. But she was not by any stretch of the imagination an avant-gardist. Cubism, when it reached her work in the sixties, was diluted—a technique useful only for expressing the landscape as she experienced it while driving through on a bus, as in her late series of Hawkes Bay landscapes. A red barn, viewed frontally, but with what should be its two non-visible sides folded out either side to become visible; a gable-roofed house with both eaves represented simultaneously. Cubistic, more than Cubist—cubified at most. (Perhaps she picked this up from John Weeks who, despite studying under Andre Lhôte in Paris, always had what has been called “a wrong-headed idea of Cubism”). And whenever one senses, for a brief moment, something quite new in her work, there is always a reminder that Angus was looking far further back than us, or her twentieth century viewers: gridlines remain sometimes visible, as though her work were a preparatory drawing for a fifteenth century fresco, and always she worked in rich glazes of colour far more reminiscent of Renaissance Florence than Picasso’s and Braque’s muted, sepia, Cubist-era Paris. The Italian Primitives of the Quattrocento were as much a persistent influence than Picasso’s own dogged dominance of Angus’ century. She did reach abstraction, once or twice, but always she clung to the objective world with a title like Growth, suggesting shoots and seedlings in the springtime Thorndon she so loved.

Angus’ New Zealand landscape, by far her most frequent subject, is always the landscape seen from the metaphorical comfort of a cottage. In this her vision of New Zealand is starkly different from the raw, geomorphic, anti-materialist visions of her Nationalist contemporaries McCahon and Woollaston. Hers is a largely domesticated landscape: a stump of tree in the foreground, always a symbol of the land tamed, upon the quilted patchwork of farmland divided and registered by a District Council; or a road, a railway or perhaps powerlines running up between the quatre-acres. In another sense, too, Angus’ paintings are always domestic. She never painted a canvas or board larger than 900mm along any dimension, and her best works were significantly smaller (often they were watercolours, which, particularly during the first half of Angus’ career, frequently surpass her oils in their power and clarity.) Central Otago of 1940, her dynamic oil composition with a clarity she perhaps never captured again, surprises for how small it seems after one has seen reproductions, and her landscapes of the late 1960s never reach larger than a 600mm by 600mm square. There is something of Dalí’s approach to scale in Angus’ small, powerful and condensed images—even something of the icon in them—and again she demarcates herself from her contemporaries who painted ever-larger. McCahon and Woollaston stun the public into submission with eventually massive works. Angus enchants us. Her works are like small jewels, radiating human-scaled hope and warmth.

In 1958 the painter from Hawkes Bay who had always maintained that “N.Z. has more than enough to offer” made what was to be her only overseas trip, to London for a year, with just a three week grand tour of the continent. Where New Zealand’s other great female painter, Frances Hodgkins, saw in Europe the intellectual frontier and decided to stay forever so she could push against it, one gets the sense that for Rita Angus, a woman who lived a life of ascetic devotion to her art, to stay would have been too easy. “It is also easier overseas as it is traditional for a painter to devote their time to their work, & a liberal atmosphere to work in.” To have it easy was not the life she had chosen.

And so New Zealanders are left with a body of work astounding in its unity, an oeuvre unwavering in its commitment to what is ‘local and special’ about this country and its inhabitants at the point this painter picked up the traces. But the conflation of the subject of a work with its spirit has been the elementary mistake to have dogged the art historical reception of Rita Angus, leaving her out in the cold behind that Oxford comma. For hers was not the chauvinist vision of her nationalist contemporaries any more than we would say Picasso’s vision was jingoistic merely because he painted memento moris during the war. Angus stands in a relationship to New Zealand art history akin to how Edward Hopper stands to America’s: concerned deeply with the country and its people, its changing present and its potential futures, modestly moving beyond the art of old while incorporating its best traditions, yet all the while never once asserting an agenda at all limited by the borders of nationhood. And indeed these two came uncannily close to one another at times, in their unwavering realism, in their seascapes (Angus’ Boats at Island Bay to Hopper’s The Long Leg) and their cityscapes (Angus’ At Suzy’s Coffee Lounge to Hopper’s Nighthawks), and in their immutable—yet mute—resistance to their young countries’ insistence that in painting their landscapes they were painting their identities.

What Rita Angus leaves us is a minutely composed lesson in how by close observation of what is unique about ourselves we might move closer to seeing what is universal—how a love for one’s land, down to a solitary Passionflower, might reflect the passions that all humans have in common. It does not seem surprising that she viewed her 1951 Rutu as perhaps her most important work: this multi-ethnic goddess is at once unmistakeably Rita and undeniably everyone, set in at once the autumnal environment of her cottage at Clifton and the tropical paradise of a Tahitian Eden. Seen this way, the solitary, suited man on the station platform at Cass may not be waiting for the Midland Line train after all. He might just be waiting—as we all are, no matter what alps or oceans we wait amongst—for someone or something a bit like Godot.

 

The Gate of Wisdom: On Education and Democracy in New Zealand, or, Why We Need the Liberal Arts

“The eyes are not here

 There are no eyes here…

  Sightless, unless

  The eyes reappear.”

         — T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

— — — —

“He opened our eyes.”

That is what my grandparents always said appreciatively about the great, late professor John Beaglehole, scholar of Captain James Cook and one of this country’s foremost public intellectuals. During the many hours they and their classmates were lucky to spend with Beaglehole in his office at Victoria University and at his Karori home they saw a life and a mind filled with the best that had been thought, said, and created in New Zealand. My grandparents’ eyes were opened—opened to the history of this country, the inspirations and the consolations of art and music, and to the idea of a meaningful life spent in service to ideas and causes one believes in.

How different will be the recollections of university students today. We seem, often, to be exhorted not to open our eyes or to create meaningful lives, but rather to go about nothing more than maximising the monetary return on our educational “investment”—as if our time at university were no more than a matter of picking the right stock and knowing when to sell. That there might be more to an education than a ticket to a first job is a possibility rarely discussed, never praised; that we might learn of morals and values, or a sense of our responsibilities as individuals and as citizens, seems altogether too hard to believe, let alone to write about. Our present educational zeitgeist was summed up neatly by the Productivity Commission’s recent report on “New Models of Tertiary Education”, in which higher education has become naught but a matter of efficiency—professors, reduced merely to staff; students, to future workers. The report recommended that the government only fund university study based on the number and type of workers the country will need. It was all very well if we are intent on educating a nation of employees. Less so, if we are to be a country made up of citizens.

New Zealanders seem to me to be a people who understand implicitly that dollars are impotent when it comes to measuring the important things in life. Things like being able to take a walk in fresh air along the local beach, or the importance of our children having, you know, a childhood, rather than studying all night from age five. Whatever side of politics one lies on, I’ve always thought that we shared an essential belief in a Kiwi way of life being more important than money; that we all implicitly push against a system that sees children becoming automatons for the sake of economic gain.

So what I don’t understand is why, then, when it comes to our universities, we are a country that has so quickly and so readily given up the belief that there might be another kind of value in them. Values like individual discovery and civic responsibility: the opening of one’s eyes to what a good life might look like, and a belief in the power and obligations of citizenship. Why do we not see that it is precisely our education that determines the kind of values we see throughout life? Or how, in our eagerness to educate ourselves, and our children, merely for a first job, we miss out on the real ‘value’ that an education can provide? And why do we not remember, ultimately, that it is our education system that determines this country’s future: whether we slide easily into a winner-takes-all politics of the Trump era, or whether we are able to preserve some sense of community and some of the values we think to be uniquely our own?

This is about the future of education in this country. It’s therefore also about the future of our democracy. But most broadly, it’s about the victory of one kind of value at the ‘expense’ of all others: the extension of the tyranny of money and metrics into the very last place that can assert and preserve the value of all that is unmeasurable, including those things we New Zealanders value most highly.

It seems clear where we are heading. Yet thankfully these days distance seems not so tyrannical, and most of the time even beneficial. Might we use it to our advantage, looking with clear eyes at the future we are so eagerly running towards—and might we then step back from it; chart a different course?

— — — —

An article in a major New Zealand newspaper late last year called it the “Bachelor of Bugger All”—yes, that very kind of education that John Beaglehole so dedicatedly taught. The cheap formula summed up the prevailing attitude. Even people close to me have said similar about the Bachelor of Arts, in barely more polite terms. While clearly the ‘BA’ debate is alive and well in this country, what we don’t often think about is how circumstantial the terms of the debate here in New Zealand are—how our very understanding of the Bachelor of Arts is a result of the relative oddities of the development of our tertiary education system.

The history of the ‘arts’ is a long one. The term itself comes not from any reference to art or culture, but from the Greek idea of the ‘liberal arts’—liberal meaning done freely, or without compulsion, and arts meaning simply ways of doing things. In New Zealand we seem to have honed in on the less important of those two words, for it is the ‘liberal’ that matters more than the ‘arts’. The term ‘arts’ has no useful value on its own, for any way of doing something is an ‘art’.

The liberal arts always were contrasted with what can be called the instrumental arts—instrumental as in, done to achieve a productive, utilitarian end. For instance, writing is a skill that must be trained at, and when I write I attempt to manipulate words in order to persuade. Similarly, a pilot manipulates the controls in the cockpit of an airplane in order to safely fly passengers between two destinations. Instrumental arts require deep skill, as well as years of training and practice that often happens best in an educational institution.

But the liberal arts, by contrast, are not learned or studied for such practical ends. Learning about philosophy, or history, or reading literature (centrepieces of such an education): we study these not to get a job in these fields, but rather because these traditions help us to answer prior, human questions. Questions like what instrumental skills are worth learning, or what work one should dedicate oneself to; what a healthy democracy looks like, and how we can contribute to one. The liberal arts help us to determine what is worth wanting and what is worth doing, before we go about achieving those ends through instrumental arts we possess or may learn. The liberal arts are not productive in the way we usually understand the term (as immediately economically useful) and are therefore frequently criticised as useless, or impractical. But their role might in fact be to help us determine what is worth our valuing, and why.

It can be tempting here to keep the liberal and the instrumental arts dichotomised, to assume that one is for the more intellectual, the other for the more practical person. But in reality the one is useless without the other; they are two sides of the same coin. Knowing, from the liberal arts, what is worth doing and what is worth wanting is of limited ‘use’ if one cannot go about also achieving those things. We may decide that a given vaccine is of great importance to human health worldwide, but without instrumental arts like biology we cannot go about producing it. Contrariwise, knowing how to do many things, or how to produce a certain good or service, could be actively harmful if one does not first know whether that good or service is worth producing, worth humans’ wanting. Instrumental arts—science—created the atomic bomb, but no one asked the prior question of whether it should be created.

The one is not more important than the other, but the order in which we learn them does matter. This is something the American higher education system has right, amidst its many failings. In the United States, almost all undergraduate degrees are ‘arts’ degrees as we would understand them in New Zealand (they refer to theirs, more properly, as a system of ‘liberal education’). At Yale, for example, the only degree options at the undergraduate level are a BA or a BSc with Honours, completed over four years. And even under the BSc option, a number of what are called ‘distribution requirements’ necessitate that all undergraduates take a set of courses across all fields—philosophy, literature, history, art, science, math. All undergraduate degrees in America are ‘arts’ degrees as we call them.

That’s right: no law, no medicine, no commerce at the undergraduate level in the United States, those very vocations that here we seem to believe must be studied from age 18. In America, one studies these instrumental arts at a postgraduate ‘school’, once you have first spent four years immersing yourself in the liberal arts, so as to have a broad sense of the world before embarking on a narrow discipline of study. This strikes me as a sensible system, as I’ve come to see the interests and aspirations I held at age 18 change over the course of my education. For just how many young Kiwis know upon leaving high school what vocation they should dedicate themselves to for life? Where here in New Zealand I might have been forced to immediately turn youthful interests into a career, in my liberal arts education I’ve had the freedom to explore, to attempt to open my eyes to the world before specialising at a postgraduate level. In the words of the former president of an American undergraduate college, a liberal arts education is first and foremost about “making the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” A rather essential undertaking, one should think.

(I wonder, too, whether the United States’ economic success could in fact be due, at least in part, to the liberal arts system; whether their economic productivity could even be because of this time taken for intellectual breadth, rather than in spite of it.)

When we talk about ‘arts’ degrees, we are trying but failing to talk about liberal education: the idea that every young person should have the opportunity to explore and to survey what life offers before embarking on vocational career training—the opportunity to have their “eyes opened” to the world before inevitably closing off parts of it. This is not such a radical idea. One might even say it is common sense.

But the irony is this: it is liberal education, the asking of “what” and “why” before “how”, that allows us to see other kinds of value in the world aside from the kind with dollar signs before it. The more we view the value of an education in terms of a “return on investment”—the more we favour pre-professional and vocational courses at the undergraduate level—the more quickly we move away from the very kind of education that most allows us to see and to understand a plurality of values; the less capacity we have to understand other values in education, like individual development and civic responsibility. It is an inexorable shift towards a society and a world of only one kind of value, and great minds have worried it may be irreversible.

We are talking about education here, yes. But education is about the kind of world we want to live in—what values we hope for our children to have, what priority we wish to give to all the different spheres of human activity. The kind of education system we shape in the coming decades will shape the kind of New Zealand we have in the decades after. Forgive me, then, for thinking the ‘arts’ degree debate has very great consequences, and is worth more than a flippant article about a “bachelor of bugger all”. Forgive me for worrying that I and my peers might not be able to speak reverently in old age about a professor who “opened our eyes”—who showed us what a good life, and a healthy society, might look like.

— — — —

Institutions we have long taken for granted seem these days to be, like New Zealand itself, on more shaky ground. Democracy most of all has taken a battering, or at least is being stretched to the limits of its political possibilities. Democratic engagement is at an all-time low in many parts of the world, at the same time as the consequences of politics have arguably never been greater. Young people feel disengaged, disenfranchised; many baby boomers, with sheer voting power, seem intent on a fallacious golden-ageism, putting up barriers at the same time as young people seem most to want them taken down. Fraying of the social fabric is producing an extremism reminiscent of the early to mid 20th century, and we in New Zealand feel perhaps for the first time thankful for a distance from Europe and the Americas. Yet we worry, nonetheless, of when and how our own politics may take a similar turn.

A democracy is made up of citizens. That citizens are individuals is self-evident, but it is rarely recognised that the inverse does not hold: not all individuals are citizens in a sense that has any meaning. To be a true citizen an individual must think themselves one. They must see themselves as political subjects, and therefore political actors; they must recognise their own power to shape politics and the responsibility that the benefits of citizenship require. One is born a citizen only in law. In fact, one must become a citizen. We learn to be one.

Might there be a relationship between an ever-increasing vocationalism at the undergraduate level—characteristics that encourage, even necessitate, a coldly rational individualism—and the fragmenting of and disengagement from politics? In other words, when we educate ourselves only for jobs instead of to “open our eyes”, do we lose sight of ourselves as being more than individual workers—do we lose sight of ourselves as citizens?

I do think there is a relationship. And I worry it might be very strong.

For there is an uncanny resemblance between the kinds of questions a liberal arts education requires us to think about, and the kinds of skills and thought that being a citizen requires. The relationship isn’t a chance one: the very system of the liberal arts, from where we still today derive our notion of an ‘arts’ education, is a product of Athens—Athens, the democracy, from where the concept of citizenship itself first came to be.

It is the task of citizens to first and foremost answer fundamental questions about their community. Questions like: how should we live? What do we value most highly? Who in our community is deserving of care and protection? These are questions of what we should do, and what we should want—the kinds of questions we learn to answer not through any practical or vocational training, but through having our eyes opened to the world. Literature, philosophy, art and history: we struggle with understanding their ‘value’ precisely because their value lies in helping us to determine what to value. We read a novel and learn of how others have lived across the ages, we see how people could act in certain situations. We judge our own lives and our own communities against the results, coming to conclusions about what to want, what to do—conclusions which through our power to vote and to act politically we then introduce into a healthy democracy.

Instead today we are all concerned with the secondary questions, those of how to do things. How to ‘solve’ a housing crisis and how to protect our rivers. But we are simultaneously trying to grow our economy: increase our exports, raise tourist numbers. Remember that the housing crisis is a housing boon to property owners, and unswimmable rivers are the result of a thriving farming industry. When we only focus on the ‘how’, we will reach divergent conclusions, for individuals see far less the effects of their own self-interest on other members of the community. We think that every ‘problem’ supposedly has a solution, yet because we never ask all the prior questions—because we do not know how to ask the human questions —we trip over ourselves, contradict ourselves, and then we wonder what’s going wrong. Technocracy can only ever answer the how, never the what or the why; it takes a stab at the ‘public interest’, so frequently forgetting that ‘interest’ can mean much more than money.

A healthy democracy, with an engaged and aware citizenry, goes hand in hand with a liberal education, an education for life rather than for a career. In literature we read of what another life might be like: we are put behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and learn what life is like when we cannot afford a home, or when land we have known to be sacred is taken from us and then soiled. In philosophy we learn a vocabulary for life’s important things: a vocabulary of morals and values, and an understanding of what foundations these values must stand upon. In history we learn not to repeat our ancestors’ mistakes; in art, we are called to live more honestly. We all need to have a common language with which to talk about the prior, more human questions that come before technocratic action, and this language is the result of an education worthy of citizens, rather than one solely for our careers.

Stuck inside the straitjacket we have all been educated into, it is often difficult to see how what our democracy needs may be different to what our economy needs—how human value may lie somewhere other than economic value. Yet that is what we must see if we at all believe that education affects the health of our democracy, not just the productivity of our workforce.

— — — —

In the Rutherford Building of Victoria University’s campus in central Wellington hangs an enormous painting, over ten metres wide and three metres tall. Its scale is the first thing one cannot help but notice: it towers over you, envelops you, makes you feel quite tiny. But because of that it also seems to give us something to aspire to.

Painted by Colin McCahon in 1970, it is one of his works to declare ‘I AM’ in giant letters that soar above us. We might read the assertion of I AM differently in different times, but recently this declaration has seemed to me to be a challenge, asking us: WHO ARE YOU? The painting is sure of its self, but are we, New Zealanders, sure of our selves?

Between the ‘I’ and the ‘A’ of ‘I AM’ there is, in McCahon’s iconic scrawl, a passage of text that reads:

“Teach us to order

our days rightly,

that we may enter

the gate

of

wisdom.”

A statement of education if there ever were one. For what is wisdom but knowledge that we can apply to our lives?

The painting was purchased on behalf of Victoria University by Tim Beaglehole, son of my grandparents’ professor John, a man who himself opened so many of his students’ eyes during his life as a professor and later as chancellor of the university. Tim sadly died two years ago, yet I recently came across a video of him explaining why he thought the Victoria University art collection must have this painting.

In the video Beaglehole explains that a passage like the one above is, on the one hand, a religious text. Isn’t a secular university then an odd place, he asks, for a religious painting to hang? “But I didn’t see it that way at all”, Tim explains: “because I think a university too is concerned with the whole nature of life—and what we can make of it.”

We all need an education of the Beaglehole kind as individuals, if we are to live lives filled with meaning. And New Zealand needs its young people to have an education that opens their eyes to the whole nature of life, and what they can make of it, if this country is to find its own way in this Oedipus-like century, a century in which nations are seemingly intent on ignoring all prophecies and one day in desperation putting out their own eyes.

 


Privately circulated first in May 2017. Thank you to all who provided feedback and comments on the first drafts of this essay. 

Feature image of McCahon’s Gate III from Victoria University of Wellington’s Victorious Magazine, Autumn 2014.

Tutira: Herbert Guthrie-Smith and the Story of a Now-Toxic Lake

Tutira, Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station by William Herbert Guthrie SmithBrowsing grandparents’ bookshelves is always an experience of rediscovery. Books often seem to skip a generation, and then come back to teach the next. Finding William Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s book Tutira in my grandparents’ bookshelves left me embarrassed that I had not heard of it before—wondering, even, why I’d not been taught about it at school.

Tutira is, according to its subtitle, “The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station”. Its author came out to New Zealand as a young man of just 21, and set about finding a farm of his own. He first tried Canterbury, where he learned his skills, but soon moved to the norther climate of Hawkes Bay, finding the area north of Napier around Lake Tūtira to suit his purposes well. The book—large, heavy, and filled with maps and photos taken by Guthrie-Smith himself—is a record of 40 years spent farming the land, and was published in 1921, almost 100 years ago.

Lake Tutira photograph William Guthrie Herbert-Smith

No detail about the process of farming or the changes of the seasons and animals is too small for Guthrie-Smith. It’s a stunning work of patience and observation. We learn of the arrival of the willow tree in New Zealand direct from the seeds of the trees that planted Napoleon’s tomb on Saint Helena; we read descriptions of the floor of the lake as Guthrie-Smith plumbed it like Thoreau plumbed Walden pond. Spending a spring weekend reading Tutira is itself an exercise in patience; page after page of minute detail does not make for easy reading, but the whole picture built up is one of sensitivity and care for a natural environment that is changing beyond anyone’s understanding.

And that was Guthrie-Smith’s motivation for writing the book—to note what nature in early New Zealand was like, for those who may someday never see it. With great foresight Guthrie-Smith explains in his preface:

“So vast and rapid have been the alterations which have occurred in New Zealand during the past forty years, that even those who, like myself, have noted them day by day, find it difficult to connect past and present—the pleasant past so completely obliterated, the changeful present so full of possibility. These alterations are not traceable merely in the fauna, avifauna, and flora of the Dominion, nor are they only to be noted on the physical surface of the countryside: more profound, they permeate the whole outlook in regard to agriculture, stock-raising, and land tenure.

The story of Tutira is the record of such change noted on one sheep-station in one province. Should its pages be found to contain matter of any permanent interest, it will be owing to the fact that the life portrayed has for ever finished, the conditions sketched passed away beyond recall. A virgin countryside cannot be restocked; the vicissitudes of its pioneers cannot be re-enacted; its invasion by alien plants, animals, and birds cannot be repeated; its ancient vegetation cannot be resuscitated,—the words “terra incognito” have been expunged from the map of little New Zealand.”

And then I remembered, after reading about half the book, when I had last read the name Tutira—earlier this year, in a New Zealand Herald article titled simply, “Lake Tutira Turns Toxic.”

“Lake Tutira has an algal bloom likely to be toxic to people and animals… Warning signs were permanently in place at Lake Tutira but people were urged to avoid contact with the lake water and to keep animals away while the cyanobacteria were present.”

It seems too great an irony—too painful a one—that it is Guthrie-Smith’s lake (he gifted the land to the Crown after his death and it is now managed by the Department of Conservation) to be now a feature example of the state of New Zealand’s natural environment. Cleaning up rivers to make them once again swimmable was one of the few points of agreements by virtually all parties in New Zealand’s recent general election, which is at once a promising sign, but also a depressing one for how it came to needing to clean them up in the first place.

And though the decrepit state of Lake Tutira is recent, one of Guthrie-Smith’s central messages is that the environment is changing all the time—species of trees were dying in his day, rare birds disappearing frequently. Environmental change is itself perhaps the only constant in Tutira. Later in his life, while preparing the third edition of his book, Guthrie-Smith began to repent for so many of the changes he himself had caused on the land; Tutira Station itself had once been native bushed, burned down to make way for his farm. Though Guthrie-Smith seems resistant to any grand narratives or messages, one can sense a message of encouraging people to have care and compassion for the land and its species—to understand the necessity of change, but to be thoughtful and caring in it.

If New Zealand had a Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Guthrie-Smith would seem to be it—minus a political message but with a whole lot more conviction and example.


My family’s copy of the book belonged to my great-grandfather, Charles William Corner, who spent his life tending Napier’s parks and gardens. I don’t know if he ever met Guthrie-Smith, but in the small world of Hawkes Bay at that point—and the smaller world of naturalists and gardeners—I think it quite likely.

Note: After writing this I came across an article reviving Guthrie-Smith in the context of Hawkes Bay today. It’s a great read, with more detail than I’ve given here.

Herbert Guthrie Smith, Tutira 1926 William Blackwood

To Spend Time Is To Explore Time: Giorgio Morandi and Edmund de Waal at Stockholm’s Artipelag

For someone like me, of a generation brought to visual consciousness amidst gallery-goers who understand paintings through a camera lens and a Google search, a first reaction to the work of Giorgio Morandi is often not dissimilar to helplessness. “Is that it?”, one wonders on seeing one of his still life paintings of a few vases and vessels. Then, when one sees a few more: Is this some kind of trick? And, upon seeing room after room of Morandi’s vases and jugs, bottles and biscuit tins: Did he really have nothing more to say?

But that won’t happen at Artipelag, a new modern museum set gently upon an island in Stockholm’s archipelago. For when you finally arrive at some of Morandi’s best work, collected from private and public collections around the world, you will have been primed to slow down, to forget the phone, to forget whatever tasks you had to get done today and whatever He Who Must Not Be Named said on Twitter—and to simply look.

Edmund de Waal is responsible for this, as his work occupies the first half of the exhibition in a cavernous space, more glass than wall, with slices of view out to pine trees and Sweden’s grey, brackish water (these views are still life too, if not natura morta). Depending how you first come across de Waal you may know him either as a writer or a potter. He is both, and he does both very well from his London studio. The Hare With the Amber Eyes is his family memoir published in 2010.

Edmund de Waal pottery Stockholm Artipelag

At Artipelag de Waal is a potter. He has created hundreds of small, cylindrical porcelain vases and vessels, finished in various glazes of whites and blacks, and has set them inside cases and vitrines. Some of these cases are set upon slabs of transparent plexiglass so that they appear to hover in space; some are transparent, inviting analysis of de Waal’s vessels, and others are opaque, so that merely the shadows of the vessels can be seen. One vitrine, Epyllion (2013) is entirely opaque when you stand close to it, and entirely transparent when viewed from a distance.

De Waal’s vases are all empty, of course—empty of matter. But over time it began to seem as if they held time and presence, since the more I looked the more I became aware of myself standing in the gallery. Or rather, lying here in the gallery, as his stunning Atmosphere (2014) pieces hang from the ceiling with conveniently placed long couches below. “My cloudscapes”, de Waal calls them—catching “The fugitive movement of the sky”.

It is particularly true in both de Waal’s and Morandi’s work that the more you put in the more you get out—spend time with these vessels, walk in between them and around them, lie beneath them and in front of them, and they just continue to give. “To spend time is to explore time”, de Waal writes in the exhibition catalogue—“This process is not a means to an end.” Here our modern conception of time is flipped upside down, and we find ourselves not investing it or even spending it—not aiming for some future, cultured return—but simply observing it.

Where Minimalist art of the 70s and 80s makes us conscious of space, de Waal and Morandi’s work makes us conscious of time. If you happen to see Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures in the Guggenheim Bilbao shortly before or after this exhibition in Stockholm, you will notice curious resonances. Each exhibition occupies similarly massive spaces; each artist dominates the space he occupies, though they do so in different ways; and each is similarly resistant to movements and labels, despite America’s need for labels forcing Serra into the Minimalism box. Perhaps most significantly, each artist suspends himself in time and space: de Waal quite literally with his hanging and floating, transparent and opaque vessels; Serra by changing our path through space and in his use of a timeless material; Morandi, by being a modern Old Master—by painting still lives in oil on canvas during Duchamp’s lifetime, by in turn ignoring Futurism and the return to order despite living in Italy, and by rejecting all modern demands of change and progress in his own work. And all of them, by returning us to a time where art was free of avant-gardist teleology—“You feel suddenly free”, Robert Hughes wrote of being inside Serra’s Guggenheim sculptures, “far from the dead zone of mass-media quotation, released from all that vulgar, tedious postmodernist litter and twitter…” This art aspires not to newness, but to timelessness.

Jeff Koons created The New, and contrasted it with The Old. In de Waal and Morandi’s work no such opposition exists. Enter this gallery and you exit Modernism’s conception of time and progress, leaving behind along with it all that is pre and post, avant-garde and rear-guard, money and metrics, fame and fortune. “What matters is to touch the core, the essence of things”, said Morandi of his art—and here one gets close to that, finding oneself held still in reality. And after all, Morandi added, “Nothing is more abstract than reality.”

Summer With Picasso and Giacometti

2017 seems an appropriate year for two big shows, the Reina Sofia’s Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica and Tate Modern’s Giacometti. As the White House talks of showing us “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, gallery-goers in Madrid and London can look back to the future and see both how we got where we are and how we know where we’re going. This is particularly useful for those of us born after the Cold War and the age of existentialism, in case we might have believed that everything going on in global politics in 2017 was somehow new.

Here’s what you know before going to either of these exhibitions: Picasso’s Guernica is about the suffering of war, and Giacometti’s sculptures are symbols of existentialism. A woman with her head thrown back, screaming, a dead child in her arms; a gaunt, emaciated man walking onwards, to work or to the grave, but ever going nowhere. The twentieth century saw a lot of both war and existentialism, the latter likely growing out of the former. We know that, but because we’ve seen Guernica endlessly reproduced, and because Giacometti’s Walking Man is little more than a substitute for the word existentialism, it has become difficult to see anything more. The question each of these exhibitions asks is: can we un-see the images and artists we think we know, and re-see them in all their depth and relevance? By contextualising the artists’ work chronologically, can we see and feel afresh the stirrings and lessons the images contain; and might we then see more clearly this familiar world that suddenly seems so strange?

To each question, an emphatic “yes”.

Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937 for a giant wall in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, is, of course, a reaction to the blanket bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe just two months earlier. Yet before the bombing happened, Picasso had already been granted the commission to produce a painting of Guernica’s size for the Pavilion, and he had been experimenting with ideas for a few months. The original plan was to do a version of one of his favourite themes, “The Artist’s Studio”, and he had completed 12 sketches on that idea (and had even planned to put a bust of his mistress at the time, Marie-Therese Walter, on either side of the painting once hung at the Pavilion). As Anne Wagner, one of the co-curators of the exhibition, notes in an article accompanying the exhibition: “It is as if, in his [Picasso’s] eyes, the end was in sight.”

Then the bombing happened, on the 26th of April. What do you do, if you’re Picasso? You’re already recognised as perhaps the greatest living painter, you’ve been granted a huge commission by your home country (though you’ve lived in France since your youth), you’re on the home stretch with ideas for this, the biggest work you’ll ever produce, and then—bombs are dropped. Hundreds, even thousands, are killed (it speaks volumes that death estimates vary so greatly). A town in your home country is literally levelled, and by a foreign country merely practising bombing techniques, showing the world what it’s got, that it’s the most powerful country on earth… It’s a single event, of which you’re only reading news reports (which are vague, at this stage—some are arguing that the bombing was done by Basque anarchists; and you aren’t even seeing any actual photos, because journalists can’t get in or out of the town for some while), and yet—it changes everything. “The Studio: The Painter and His Model” suddenly seems quaint, to put it mildly, and the planned busts of your mistress now seem just daft, self-gratifying to the extreme. Events outside of your control force you to respond. And just five weeks later, you’ve declared Guernica complete.

In getting at the work’s dualities, the other co-curator of the exhibition, T. J. Clark, quotes A. C. Bradley’s description of the Greeks:

“Everywhere, from the crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end.”

It’s exactly that kind of duality that we see in all Picasso’s work. Picasso famously said that he never painted subjects, but only themes. Anne Wagner explains in an LRB article how Picasso told Andre Malraux after he had completed Guernica that he had painted death “as a skull, not a car crash”. His other themes included birth, pregnancy, suffering, murder, the couple, death, rebellion… For Picasso, there are hideous contradictions he needs to respond to. Just days before he had been working on a painting glorifying art and artists—himself, essentially—as well as his lover, Marie-Therese. He had been glorifying some of those themes like birth and pregnancy (Marie-Therese had given birth to his daughter two years earlier)—which for him were always associated with his own pregnancy, of ideas, and his giving birth to them in painting. He had been glorifying power, intelligence, life and glory, beauty—themes called into question by a senseless, needless bombing. How do you respond, if you’re Picasso?

It’s this kind of narrative that the Reina Sofia exhibition does so well at capturing. We see not just his sketches for Guernica, but his paintings all the way back to his post-Cubist still lives inside his studio, to his disturbing depictions of tangled lovers kissing/penetrating/attacking one another on a beach. We see his changing depictions of the (many) women in his life, and the themes of pregnancy, birth and suffering. And Guernica, when we do finally see it (albeit, perhaps appropriately, from behind crowds) we can’t help but see it differently. Even though we’ve grown up seeing the mural on coffee cups and t-shirts, it has now regained its poignancy and power, and it seems to contain both sides of Bradley’s description of the Greeks. All the death, murder and suffering, yes—but also all the things that cause us to suffer, like our children and our lovers, our ideas (is it Edison’s illuminating bulb that sits above the wails of terror, or Goya’s lantern from the Third of May?) and our religion (a candle is thrust into the scene through a window, giving us light in darkness and inviting us somewhere else—or is this merely a vigil?).

Swollen breasts, life-giving, hang over the child and point at the man pinned by the spooked horse to the ground. But look again, and are not the breasts shaped like bombs; areola, like explosive casing, and nipples like a trigger? For after all, even the dictator, now dropping bombs, did place his mouth here, did gain sustenance here.

— — — —

In London, at the Tate Modern, Giacometti shows us what humanity looks like when the death, murder and suffering themes win out over their counterparts life, birth and hope. Giacometti was twenty years Picasso’s junior: is this a generational difference, or merely a response to the post-war world? (The two were known to holiday together on the French Riviera, until a falling out, but they remained great admirers of each others’ work).

Walk into the exhibition and in the first room you will be greeted by perhaps fifty busts produced across Giacometti’s lifetime, from the first in 1917 (when he was just 16). At first they are done in plaster, the face a flat disc with features painted on. In the middle period, they are tiny—truly, tiny—because Giacometti was forced to spend the war in his native Switzerland holed up in a small hotel room. He produced sculptures the size he could bring back to France with him in a matchbox—and I think the results are some of his best; a head or body so small you need to strain to see its features, yet attached to a base so large that you can almost feel the unbearable weight of being (I almost felt that Kundera were trying to respond to these busts). And, in his later period, the characteristic elongation from nose to nape, where the face meets in a sharp point before the eyes and extends backwards, all the wrinkles and gauntness exaggerated and emphasised.

If you’re familiar with Giacometti, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these aren’t happy faces. But then again, what sculptor ever painted happy subjects? Bronze and marble (though Giacometti did not use the latter, he did have a preference for displaying the plaster originals before they were cast in bronze) are mediums that say permanence, timelessness, greatness—and so we expect to see grand subjects. Think Rodin, or, in non-figurative sculpture, even Brancusi’s objects have a kind of grand sincerity to them. But what struck me in this first room of the Giacometti exhibition, which I thought the best of all, was how decidedly ordinary and routine all these faces look, how haggard and temporary. To put it more bluntly, even the youngest subjects look not so far away from the grave. And yet—they are for the most part cast in bronze, and will outlast us all, thanks to the artistic efforts of one of our species’ members.

The exhibition is large. We see Giacometti as a struggling Surrealist, struggling because he seemed interested only in the human form (he was later expelled from the group for his continuing to create representational works). We see his Chariot, and The Dog (“It’s me”, Giacometti is reported to have said. “One day I saw myself in the street like that. I was the dog.”). We see the Women of Venice, the plaster originals brought almost all together for the first time since they were displayed at the Venice Biennale for the first time in 1956. There are Giacometti’s oil paintings, with their cage-like interiors which so influenced Francis Bacon. And in the final room we see his towering tall women, double our height, so that we are left with the sense of having walked for a while among giants.

In Picasso: Pity and Terror we saw the coupling of all that is best in the world with all that we would rather not think about—death and suffering with birth and joy. In Giacometti we see the duality of temporality, or of being in human time on the one hand, with the permanence of humankind thanks to our endeavours, on the other. We trudge onwards to work and to the grave, and we have our crises along the way, but all that haggardness is outlasted by the permanence of what we accomplish. It’s a strange duality—and strange too is the sight of Giacometti’s brother Diego throughout the exhibition, looking always so tired of it all, yet being looked at tirelessly by thousands each day, thousands who somehow come out of the gallery with a new vitality.

— — — —

I might be too frank here, but 2017 has had me thinking a lot more about death. Just a few days before I saw Giacometti in London there had been the terrible terrorist attacks on a nearby bridge and at Borough Market. Then there are the talks of war, maybe of the nuclear kind, on the Korean Peninsula—and bombs continue to drop in Syria. More personally, I’ve had to attend the funerals of close family members, and bad bicycle crashes have left me feeling very mortal. (Days after I wrote this Las Ramblas in Barcelona became the site of another terrorist attack—Picasso’s childhood home given a new relationship to Guernica).

These threats and worries aren’t out of the ordinary. Certainly my awareness of them at this age indicates the relative comfort of my upbringing. The second half of the twentieth century has been called the nuclear peace for a reason, and deaths from terrorist attacks have statistically never been less likely. Maybe all that is unique in my thinking about death is having the combination of a growing individual awareness of death—call that growing up—at the same time as politics itself seems for the first time in my conscious life to present death as a possible outcome.

High on a wall in the Guernica exhibition was printed a quote of Hannah Arendt’s, getting at the heart of the idea of death in both Picasso and Giacometti:

“Death, whether faced in actual dying or in the inner awareness of one’s own mortality, is perhaps the most anti-political experience there is. It signifies that we shall disappear from the world of appearances and leave the company of our fellow-men, which are the conditions of all politics. As far as human experience is concerned, death indicates an extreme of loneliness and impotence. But faced collectively and in action, death changes its countenance; now nothing seems more likely to intensify our vitality than its proximity. Something we are usually hardly aware of, namely, that our own death is accompanied by the potential immortality of the group we belong to and, in the final analysis, of the species, moves into the centre of our experience. It is as though life itself, the immortal life of the species, nourished, as it were, by the sempiternal dying of its individual members, is ‘surging upward’, actualised in the practice of violence.”

What I’m talking about is becoming aware of both of these kinds of death, at the same time: death as the most non-political event there is, and death as an ultimate outcome of politics. That’s why 2017 was an appropriate year for these two big shows. In Giacometti we see not death itself, but the non-political awareness of it: the slow decline towards an unobserved, solitary, nighttime departure. And in Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica we see all the contradictory vitality of political death. Mortality, solitariness, ageing and sickness in Giacometti; terrorism, war, energy, and pain in Picasso.

Summer in London was bookended this year by two very different kinds of events. Maybe it’s crude to speak of them in the same paragraph, but it’s the kind of opposition we’ve seen throughout these two exhibitions, the kind that Picasso spent his life depicting. Summer began with terrorism, and it ended with Wimbledon—and at Wimbledon, with an old genius, facing ageing, mortality and decline, showing it’s not all over yet. “Genius is not replicable”, David Foster Wallace wrote of Roger Federer (and I read him as writing of genius everywhere, including that of Picasso and Giacometti): “Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

It may be fleeting indeed, but that reconciliation is what art—and especially that of Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti—finally offers us.


Note: As if to emphasise the point, from late 2016 to early 2017 the Musee Picasso in Paris curated an exhibition called Picasso-Giacometti, putting together for the first time the work of these two artists. I didn’t get to see the exhibition, but it seems too fitting that the two artists met in Paris, half way between their later stand-alone exhibitions in Madrid and London.