Thursday, October 13, 2011

Children & Italy & Art

I just finished rereading The Last Supper : a Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk. Reading it for the first time a couple of years ago, well before the Roman trip last March, I didn't actually pay any particular attention to the "travel book" aspect, content to let the Italian background serve as a pretext for a fresh serving of the shapely and astringent prose I already admired from Rachel Cusk's novels. She seemed in the Italy book to be jogging along describing (with her own native frankness and wit) whatever happened to happen during a couple of months of low-budget sightseeing with her husband and two little girls. And that was fine with me, though most reviewers complained that her attitude toward her fellow tourists was offensively snotty. But the so-called snottiness didn't bother me either, since Cusk was just as ready to sneer at herself as at anybody else. And anyway, what the critics really meant was that a man could complain about contemporary cultural trends and be regarded as a pundit, while a woman saying the same thing is a pretentious bitch.

This second reading made me conscious of deeper layers in the book. Between the two readings my granddaughter was born (renewing my own ardent involvement with children) and I made my own art-stuffed trip to Italy, so I had learned a few new things. In The Last Supper there are frequent long passages setting two kinds of vividness against each other, the vivid minute-by-minute life of children (Rachel Cusk's daughters) juxtaposed with the unchanging canonical splendors of Renaissance art. These passages are tentative, sometimes fractious, and as far as possible from the cultivated consumerist travelogues expected and desired by the critics, who want the glossy assurances of the Sunday supplement -- not this anxious speculation about meaning itself. What is beauty? What is time? What is death? Subtly and mostly by implication those are the impossible questions Rachel Cusk is either brave or foolish enough to entertain as a traveler.

In the first quote below she is pondering Sea and Sardinia where D.H. Lawrence, nearly a century earlier, had bravely and foolishly entertained the same impossible questions.

"Lawrence himself tired of Italy, its little gardenlike landscapes, its art that he began to see as a substitute for life, its soppiness, what he called its "macaroni love." He claimed to appreciate Sardinia for its lack of culture: how pleasant, he wrote, to come to a place where there were no Peruginos you had to go and look at. There was a time when he needed to look at Peruginos, and also to enter the Roman past, the Hellenic. He had needed to furnish his soul with classicism, but he had outlived that need. Now what he required was life itself, living humanity. In The Rainbow Lawrence writes of the operation of culture as a form of grace in human evolution. People discover books, art, music; they inch forward in consciousness, pass on their discoveries to their children, who inch forward a little more. In The Rainbow, Will Brangwen is a frustrated aesthete who believes he will create art, but who ends up a bitter, violent man, teaching carpentry at adult-education classes in the new socially inclusive England of the early twentieth century. It is his daughter, Gudrun, who becomes the artist and thereby escapes her regional, working-class roots. Will, as the father of young children, would sit in the Nottinghamshire evenings leafing through his precious art books with the reproductions of Fra Angelico, but it was his daughter who would consummate his desire for these images. Will is able to comprehend beauty but not to bear its caste. As a man he is cruel, and fettered by upbringing. In the end the Fra Angelicos fail to refine his nature."

"I am half shocked by Lawrence's remarks about art, but I sympathize with them too. He did not, after all, know how physically ugly the world would become. For me, it is necessary to look at Perugino, in order to digest the supermarkets and shopping malls, the litter and landfill sites, the pylons and traffic jams and motorway service stations that otherwise fill the eye. Without beauty, the human sensibility becomes discouraged. One could look at a flower, of course, or a child; but to look at a painting is to feel looked at, comprehended, yourself. It is to experience empathy, for what is art but the struggle to acknowledge the fact that we ourselves were created? Over time the morality of art has become clear and distinct: we don't ask it to be correct, or selfless, or didactic, or judgmental. We don't blame it for the uses to which it is put. We don't expect it to intervene, to determine, to make peace or war, to end poverty or greed, to abate suffering. We ask only that it be beautiful and true. We turn to it to dignify our experience of the world; to find a reply to the question of consciousness.

"But I, too, have a qualm about the Fra Angelicos, the Peruginos. It is that they belong to the past. Their reality is so remote from our own: I fear that to look at them is a form of nostalgia. I fear the feeling of sadness they cause me, sadness that our own world is not more beautiful. I wonder whether the others feel that too, queuing down the streets in their thousands, thronging at the ropes of museums.

"It strikes me that the glory of art is the glory of survival, for survival is an inhuman property. It is an attribute of mountains and objects, of the worthless toys in the children's bedroom at home that will outlive us all. That which is human decays and disappears: only in art does the quality of humanity favor survival. Only in art is a record kept of an instant, that the next instant doesn't erase."