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Tuesday 23 March 2010

A Return to Beauty

I feel so strongly about this subject that I have written this post here and on the "Hilliard & Croft" blog.

For six weeks David Dimbleby's wonderful 'The Seven Ages of Britain' took viewers on an artistic journey through the history of the country from the earliest civilizations to the modern age. Without shying away from the harsher aspects of life and belief - the paintings of heaven and hell, used by religious authorities to frighten people into submission; the vivid depictions of the effects of decadence as shown in 'The Rake's Progress'; and the brutality of weaponry and war - the artists and craftsmen managed to reach to the finest aspects of humanity, taking pride in their work and leaving a legacy of beauty for future generations.

Then came the final episode - "The Age of Ambition". After each of the previous episodes, I felt uplifted and inspired. After this episode, I felt only disgust, depression and almost despair at the depths to which the art world (and the world of literature) has sunk. No painstaking works of art, seeking out the best in humanity, but feeble and shoddy attempts to degrade and demean. After seeing the splattering of red wax on a wall and the so-called artist's agreement that it resembled to blood and that it was good for us to consider such taboo subjects, came the bizarre ugliness of men who painted themselves defecating as though this had some meaning in portraying real life. We were then treated to Damian Hirst's collection of dead flies, and watching him squirt paint onto a turntable (which reminded me of five year olds discovering paint for the first time) followed by Tracey Emin's meaningless comparison between women artists and women's sexuality. Claiming that she was liberated by Feminism, she presented a series of scrappy drawings of naked women in various poses (again, I was reminded of sketches drawn by pubescent boys and passed around classrooms to provide titillation) before her latest work which is basically pornography - absolutely demeaning to women and evidently the product of a mind which seems to wallow in all that is base.

As with so much music and the accompanying videos, and with a great deal of literature, art has descended into the mire of the most sordid minds. As today we can still be uplifted by the works of the great artists from the past, what will be handed on from this age to the people of tomorrow? Is this our legacy to posterity? The aim, it appears, is to shock. It isn't shocking. In order to be shocking, something has to be outstanding and 'different'. This, on the contrary, is merely childish and appears to be the work of emotionally stunted people who choose to dwell upon the dark side. It is said that such dross is a reflection of the age. In fact, it is not. It is merely a reflection of those who have the power to decide what is classed as art and what is not. All over the country, there are craftsmen and artists who produce work of real merit. Their work is visible in local galleries and displays originality and great skill. Seeing such work is uplifting and inspiring. Unfortunately these works are nowadays dismissed by the critics who seem bent on observing and promoting only ugliness.

People complain of the effects of violent video games, the amount of available pornography and the impact of such things on young people. What a disservice to young people - as well as to posterity - the art world is doing, if such trash as was seen in Sunday's night's episode is presented as art. If we wish to improve the way we live, it begins in our own minds. Minds filled with darkness produce dark actions. Let us, for heaven's sake, have a return to beauty. Let's be unafraid to state 'the king is wearing no clothes' when we are presented with this ugliness. Let us state that it is not representative of the age, but only representative of the few warped minds who happen to control art and literature at the moment. If we wish to improve our lives, our sense of cohesion and integrity, the way we treat other people and our sense of our own value and dignity, first and foremost we need a return to skill, to devotion to a craft or art, and, above all, to beauty.

Friday 19 March 2010

Sleeping Beauties

In the fairy tale of 'The Sleeping Beauty', the prince must cut his way through century-old brambles and briars to break the spell of the wicked fairy, reach the castle and wake the sleeping princess. Like all fairy tales, there is an inherent truth in the story that can be applied to many situations and it becomes increasingly apparent how apt a metaphor 'The Sleeping Beauty' is for delving into the past. 'Sleeping' kings and queens especially are surrounded by brambles and briars of lies, planted sometimes by victors who wished to justify and conceal their own faults and sometimes by the hypnosis that leads us to take everything at face value.

Richard III of England, Nicholas II of Russia and Marie Antoinette of France are three such 'sleeping beauties' surrounded by scathingly simple adjectives as murderous, foolish or weak, when in fact all three were quite different from the popular myths. Richard, happily still loved in the north of England, was been so defamed by the usurper, Henry VII, that even all these centuries later, many still see him as the 'murderer of his nephews'. Marie Antoinette is still seen as a silly and frivolous girl who said nothing apart from 'Let them eat cake...' and did not care a hoot for her people - and it is quite forgotten that she might have escaped from France but remained there because she would not desert her husband in his hour of need. And Nicholas - Nicholas-the-weak - who was anything but weak, who tried harder to prevent the First World War than any other monarch attempted; who had such a desire for peace in the Balkans that he worked from dawn till dusk and late into the night, seeking solutions - which King George shot grouse and the Kaiser took his Norwegian cruise and poor old Franz Josef was duped by his war council. And then there is the last Austrian Emperor, Karl, whom I admire more by the day, the more I learn of him. Seen as a traitor by his own people because - having seen the mindless carnage with his own eyes - he desired to end the war that he had no part in starting.

Nothing is ever as it appears and no matter how many times lies and myths are repeated, and no matter how many professors cast judgement on men and women in whose shoes they have not walked, I think anyone who wishes to take more than a cursory glimpse at history needs first and foremost a basic understanding of psychology and empathy to cut through the briars and brambles and awaken the really beautiful people of the past.

Friday 12 March 2010

Did They Have to Beatify Karl?

I think it is rather unfortunate that the Catholic Church decided to beatify Karl, the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary, not because I do not admire this man, but because as soon as someone is turned into a saint (or on the way to becoming a saint) it always seems that their true personality and humanity is lost in the mirage of 'sanctity'. They seem to lose their immediate appeal as fellow human beings as they are placed on some kind of holy pedestal (and deemed 'worthy of imitation' - though how it is possible for the average person to imitate an Emperor of Austria is rather unclear).

Perhaps that kind of unexpected elevation is rather appropriate in Karl's case. When he was born in 1887, the likelihood of his coming to the throne was minimal. Crown Prince Rudolf was still alive (just about!) and several others stood between Karl and his great uncle, the aging Emperor Franz Josef. Even after Rudolf's tragic death at Mayerling, others stood between young Karl and the throne, most notably, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose murder not only raised Karl to the position of heir, but sparked the First World War.

I admire Karl for several reasons but primary because he was the sole member of the family to take the trouble to be present when the bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were brought back to Vienna after their murder in Sarajevo. The vile minister, Monenuovo, who hated Franz Ferdinand, had arranged that their bodies should arrive in the middle of the night to avoid a public display of respect for the murdered archduke, but Karl was there. I think of him on that dreary platform, paying his genuine respects to the dead and grieving for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's children. Karl also promised to take care of those children.

When, in the middle of the First World War, he became Emperor, he was seen by the war cabinet as a liability. He objected to the use of poison gas, the killing of civilians and he sought to make a separate peace. This, of course, is seen as treacherous in war time, but Karl, unlike many of those war-mongering ministers, had seen the slaughter first hand and - along with so many other ordinary soldiers - saw the pointlessness of it all.

He was a devoutly religious man, and his religion undoubtedly was an essential part of him, but I think that making him a saint is really the last thing this unassuming man would have wanted. It smacks of some kind of political motive to me and I hope that this very real human being, caught up in the trauma and tragedy of World War One, isn't turned into some kind of plaster-cast caricature of the interesting and well-meaning person that he was.

Saturday 6 March 2010

The Kaiser in the First World War

Throughout the First World War Kaiser Wilhelm seemed to go into a sort of manic-depressive state. One minute he was elated and filled with wild notions ranging from rage and anger (about killing all the Russian prisoners of war) and the next taking to his bed for in utter despair. If 'Willy' were responsible for the war, as was suggested afterwards by those who wanted to bring him to trial for war crimes, he would be a real criminal, but the truth is that he wasn't responsible for it at all. He was a puppet. He called himself the All Powerful, and he played in his uniforms and parades but his generals and war council played him to the full.

I wonder sometimes which would be worse for Willy: to feel himself responsible for all that carnage, which he did not want, or to view himself as insignificant and at the mercy of his ministers. The propaganda of the time portrayed him as a monster but he never actually commanded an army or captained a ship. He played - Nero-like, he fiddled while Rome burned. Poor, poor man - he was just a little boy playing and never realising that those around him were taking his game as reality.

The photos of him during his exile in Holland, show the face of a man filled with sorrow. I guess, for appearance sake, he played his part to the end - his memoirs are filled with untruths (such as what he wrote of Tsar Nicholas in the run-up to the war) - but in his heart, he must have been feeling bewildered beyond belief. He might have liked to have been the monster on the propaganda posters, rather than the poor little boy and sad man he became.

I can't help liking him.

Friday 5 March 2010

Live and Let Live

It's a bizarre thing that when people believe strongly in something we have a need to make everyone else believe the same thing. Evangelizing is seen as something essential to some religions in much the same way as political indoctrination is seen as essential to revolutionary groups or parliamentarians. It's very odd.

If people of a religious group believe that God is omnipotent and omnipresent, why do they take it upon themselves to tell another part of humanity that this is so? Surely the omnipresent God is already in that part of humanity, and the omnipotent God has little need of their services? And yet, throughout history, people have, in the name of God, murdered, destroyed, undermined others' beliefs and called it evangelization.

If people of a certain political persuasion believe that there is power in sharing the earth's wealth and resources, why do they take it upon themselves to control others? Surely the recognition of the rights and power of the individual means that each person is capable of making her/his own decisions and doesn't need to be ruled. Why then do those who speak most vociferously for 'the people' attempt control the people with such ferocity? Stalin, Lenin, Hitler - all 'socialists' were actually control-freaks.

In every walk of life it is apparent that those who cling most fervently to an '....ism' are those who are incapable of living the Truth they claim to promote. I just don't understand why there is a need to make some kind of moral law for others when, if we know our own morality, we live it. When a person really knows what he/she believes, there is no need whatsoever for agreement outside him/herself. Don't you agree? Well, if not, we don't need to agree we can live and let live...