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.

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.

Creative Blindness

The idea of creativity conjures notions of newness in visual arts, literature and music. Of course, creativity exists in all fields in different ways, but it exists in an idealised form in disciplines with fewer constraints.

Yet the perennial challenge in being creative, especially in artistic fields, is in trying to throw off subconscious notions of the way things have been done before. Visual culture influences what our minds view as possible and impossible. It took centuries before artists, first in France, realised that art was more than a competition to reproduce real life on a canvas; and it took perhaps a century more for others to realise that art might specifically seek to create what does not exist in reality. That necessity of breaking out of mental silos could be thought of as the artistic struggle.

Wassily Kandinsky’s essay On The Spiritual Art captures this idea perfectly: that the artist is the person who sees his or her role as being creative in order to break through the invisible barriers of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, instead looking inside themselves for guidance.

“The artist should be blind to “accepted” or “unacceptable” form, deaf to the precepts and demands of his [or her! — Kandinsky published this in 1911] time. His eyes should be always directed toward his own inner life, and his ears turned to the voice of internal necessity.”

Kandinsky continues, arguing that “internal necessity” of the artist arises from three separate desires or drives:

“1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself.

2. Every artist, as child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time.

3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general.

Through following that internal necessity, and by being blind to what is accepted and unaccepted, an artist (or, anyone who sees creativity and innovation as necessary in their projects) can find what is larger, and can find what is universal.

That process drives progress, in the sense that progress represents a given culture’s new ways of doing and understanding universal and established tasks.

“I Could Have Done That”

The comment frivolously directed at so much modern art is that a child could have done it, or at the very least “I could have”.

But the point is, you didn’t. You did not have the idea to do it. And if you did have the idea, you did not have the work ethic.

The artist (whether a writer, painter, musician or any other kind) combined the idea with the work ethic and saw it through to reality. Simplicity and a lack of technique or skill required to produce an artwork merely makes the point stronger that they had a creativity and a work ethic that you did not.

And the more simple the art, the less that is superfluous, the more difficult it was to create.

That is the paradox that leads so many to think there is nothing unique in what was done. But what is hidden beneath the surface of some of the canon’s most beautifully simple works is an indescribable amount of thought and effort, and an immense struggle to show up day after day after day until art happened. The simplicity and elegance of much great art disguises what really went into it.

What the Permanent 5 Can Learn From the Painting That Hangs Above Them

Copyright United Nations.
Copyright United Nations.

Note: I conducted research for this article in 2015 for an art history class at Yale-NUS College, and originally published this article version of my research on Fox & Hedgehog.

On the east wall of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) chamber hangs an enormous painting that all will recognise and yet be able to say almost nothing about. It is a grand backdrop, but little more, to the grander discussions occurring at the table before it.

The story behind this painting, its artist, and its present context is a complex one that highlights the tensions between the Security Council’s aspirations and its conflicted past; it is an important reminder to the Council that radical changes are sometimes needed, not just superficial adjustments. As I’ll explain, Per Krohg, the artist, made precisely this mistake when he reused work he had completed during the Nazi occupation of Norway as the centrepiece of his UNSC work, completed in 1950. Both Krohg’s painting and the P5 are remnants of the war, and risk failing precisely because, out of fear or misunderstanding, they refuse to reinvent themselves for the times we now live in.

Per Krohg’s painting is some five by nine metres, and is divided horizontally; the lower-third is executed in dark colours, the upper two-thirds much lighter with UN-white and blue motifs. Colour alone gives much of the work’s message: the lighter colours suggest peace, progress and truth, while the darker colours depict a hellish landscape. “Symbolising”, the UNSC tells us, “the promise of future peace and individual freedom”, the work shows a phoenix rising from a dark landscape into a light-filled world of progress. Though complex, with many panels depicting separate scenes, the painting’s overall message is simple: technology, justice and truth, united by the nuclear family and the UN-led world order, are forces that progress humanity.

Despite its initial simplicity and message, the iconography of this painting becomes deeply troubling the more it is observed. It is clearly a propagandistic image in favour of the UN-led order, but only a thin film separates it from being a troubling and conflicted remnant of war, and a symbol of what the UN has or could become. Created to represent the lofty goals of the world’s most inclusive and progressive organisation, the painting in fact depicts the opposite. It is so deeply rooted in the Second World War, with all of that period’s problems, that Gregory Maertz, an art historian specialising in the Third Reich at St. John’s University, even told me that Krohg’s painting “could easily function as nazi propaganda on behalf of national socialist eugenic (later eliminatory) ideology”. For instance, it is caucasian men and women who pull chained, black figures out of the hellish lower-third of the painting; it is caucasian figures who look through telescopes and microscopes in the upper-right of the image, and the same figures who weigh gold in the upper-left. And, of course, the centrepiece of the image is a caucasian nuclear family surrounded by Biblical iconography. These were the figures and motifs ever-present at Nazi art exhibitions throughout the Third Reich, in Munich, Oslo and Vienna, for instance.

It is the centrepiece of this painting that says the most about the painting as a whole, and, perhaps, the state of the Security Council today. What seems to be unrecognised or even unknown in the scholarship about Krohg’s painting is that the centre panel, depicting the nuclear family, is not original. In fact, the panel is almost identical to a painting that Krohg completed in 1940, at the start of the Nazi occupation of Norway. This other work, titled Peace, the Artist and His Family, is a forlorn painting, the man and woman at the centre of it both with downcast gazes, and even the children surrounding them looking melancholy. It can be read as Krohg’s reaction to the occupation, and the knowledge that he might be separated from his family. In the version Krohg produced for the centrepiece of the UNSC painting, the only changes made are that the figures have much lighter skin and hair, have subtle smiles, and the man and woman now have linked arms.

Per Krohg was an artist who was invited to paint a monumental work for the world’s most important room; he was tasked with encapsulating the notion of peace in a single image. But for Krohg, who had lived through the Nazi occupation, and even been imprisoned for a year by the Nazis, peace seemed only to function in relation to war. The same can be said of the Security Council today, a body whose permanent members remain because of the role they played in the Second World War; the P5 reflects global power in 1945, not global power today.

For Krohg, the United Nations was a promise of avoiding the preceding decade that he had lived through. The problem with reusing his own work from 1940 is not so much self-plagiarism as forever tying the Security Council chamber to a very specific war, and its very specific problems. The Security Council itself functions in the same way. By mooring itself, through permanent membership and the veto power, to a specific war and very distinct problems, the Security Council risks becoming a body that no longer has the power to inspire peace, just as Krohg’s mural today is more problematic than it is inspiring. Reforming the Security Council by expanding permanent membership to reflect present global power would be an immediate way for the Council to un-stick itself from the remnants of war.

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In 2013 the United Nations completed extensive restoration of the Security Council chamber which had been ongoing for seven years at a cost of USD$1billion. If there was ever a time to update the physical Council chamber—or even Council permanent membership—to reflect the times in which it now operates, that would seem to have been it. When asked by a magazine about the changes made to the Security Council chamber, Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary-general in charge of the project, responded: “We didn’t change very much. The Americans and the Russians and the Chinese are all extremely nervous about Security Council reform and the slippery slope—‘If you change this, where is that going to lead us?’” He went on: “Whether it works for the world is a matter of opinion, but it works for the five permanent members, so there’s a great deal of reluctance to change anything.”

The image of the family, and the other tropes so prevalent in his painting, clearly worked for Per Lasson Krohg. Whether they work for the world is a matter of opinion. But the irony is that the permanent members of the Security Council are watched over by a painting that is meant to remind them of their role in maintaining and advancing peace in the post-war world, and instead should remind them of the dangers of being stuck in the past. The latter is the immediate lesson they should pay attention to, or else the former may become impossible.