Age is an artist that continues to paint experience after experience over the worn and tattered scenes that are no more. For most of us, however, the pentimento is obvious, and never quite disappears beneath the crust of what we insist on adding. And yet, we continue to paint in hopes we’ve got it right at last: that what we are now portraying is what we should have seen those many years ago. All the while, of course, the colours thicken on what we layered on before, adding nothing to our knowledge, only curtains that cast shadows on the canvas -the past no more than tricks of light.
And yet I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to Art than the depiction of long forgotten histories in words or canvas -far more, in fact. Art is the plaque in the cornerstone that reminds us of how things were, the figure-ground that taunts our hallowed view of present days -the stories that we have come to revere.
But we are, all of us, Art; we are the stories that we tell, and the ones that we have heard. We are what we have seen, however vaguely remembered, and parts of us are shadows that follow us around like memories.
So, it occurred to me that Art could function as a synergist: its effect is greater than might be expected from what it depicts. If nothing else, a painting -like an old photograph, perhaps- allows us to see what was and compare it with what is. Some difference is usually to be expected, I suppose, but if the change is sufficiently irreconcilable to our expectations, it may speak to those little ears within that are alert to dissonance. In other words, it may spur us to a conclusion, an action, that we may not have felt was either necessary or justified before: the past ‘screwing our courage to the sticking place’, to slightly paraphrase Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
I hasten to admit that my epiphany is far from original, but I was pleased to find a thorough examination of it in an essay in BBC Future written by Ella Saltmarshe and Beatrice Pembroke, the founders of the Long Time Project which ‘champions art and culture as a route to helping people think and act more long-term.’ https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190521-how-art-and-culture-can-help-us-rethink-time
‘For most of human history we haven’t needed to think long-term,’ they write. ‘” As futurist Jamais Casio puts it, “In a world of constant, imminent existential threats, the ability to recognise subtle, long-term processes and multi-generational changes wasn’t a particularly important adaptive advantage.” Yet today, the nature of risk has changed. We no longer live in a world of clear, local cause and effect, and the greatest threats to civilisation are happening on the timescale of decades or centuries.’ And yet, ‘While our minds might be not be wired to deal with long-term threats and priorities in the abstract, they are wired for two things that we can control: story and emotion… Art can stretch our time frames, helping us develop what geologist Marcia Bjornerud calls “timefulness”: the ability to locate ourselves within eras and aeons, rather than weeks and months.’
The authors go on to document the ‘growing body of deep time work that locates us in the epic geological history of the Universe, evoking awe and wonder.’ And it seems to me that such an approach may help to bridge the ever-widening gap between indifference and despair: the unwillingness to confront the existential threats that seem to be confronting us at every turn -from the paucity new antibiotics able to deal with increasing microbial resistance, the growing mistrust of vaccines in the face of overwhelming evidence for their efficacy, to the elephant looming in the dark, stuffy room of climate change. We are often so frightened by these, and other things, that we turn our heads away, and like children hiding under a blanket, think we have found a refuge from the elephant and his kin. But somewhere inside, we know we have solved nothing, and if we turn again to look, we find that it is staring at us still.
Sometimes, when things seem too remote for action, too unlikely to affect us, or worse, too horrible to contemplate, we benefit from intermediaries we trust to explain what we have failed to understand and to guide us through the fear. Change is normal, but only when it doesn’t colour outside the expected boundaries -then it turns to chaos. In the words of Shakespeare again -this time King Lear- that way madness lies; let me shun that. So, as the authors write: ‘If we can work with art and culture to stretch our time frames so that we care about the long-term future, then hopefully as a species, we will have a future in the long term.’
And sometimes, it is also the little things changing that we’re reluctant to face.
“Is that where you used to live, Grampa?” My 4 year old grandson stared at the picture I had shown him with a doubtful expression on his face. “Can we go and see it…?”
I could only smile at his enthusiasm. I was a child myself when I’d lived there and my parents had long since sold the house to developers, but at the time it was on a quiet, unsidewalked street lined with trees. Now, years later, it was lined with multi-storied apartment blocks and parked cars.
“It’s changed since then, Cas,” I explained. “And our house isn’t there anymore…”
“Where’d it go?” he asked, his face now puzzled.
My answer was a little shrug. In truth, I missed the house with its wide wooden steps and covered porch. It had trees in the front and back, and a garden where my mother used to grow vegetables that she’d preserve for the long, protracted winter season. I’d told Cas about it many times, but had only just found the grainy photograph for him to see.
“Is the street like our street now?” He ran to the front window of the little apartment his mother and my son were renting while they worked their way up their respective corporate ladders. I had agreed to babysit for the afternoon.
I walked over to the window and looked out with him; I had to nod my head. “Yes Cas, very much like this street.”
He stared out the window for a while, and as I started to walk away, he turned to me. “Why did you let them do it, Grampa?”
The question caught me by surprise. “Do what, Cas?”
“Tear down your beautiful house and take away the trees?”
I had to sigh. “I suppose my mommy and daddy were getting old and needed to move to some place smaller that was easier to take care of…” In fact, they were both gone now.
He thought about it for a moment. “Did their new house have trees and a garden, too?”
Cas seemed so earnest that I didn’t want to disappoint him. He’d never met his great-grandparents; he’d never had to endure their gradual decay in the extended care home in which they ended up. So I nodded. “Yes, they moved to a place with trees and a little flower garden.”
A big smile suddenly appeared on his face and his eyes twinkled with pleasure. “That’s good,” he said, with a sudden adult expression on his little face. “My daddy says we’re going to move to a place with trees…” He glanced out of the window again. “Trees are important when you get old, aren’t they Grampa?”
They certainly are Cas, I thought and nodded with a sigh. Trees will always be important.