Last Friday (1 April) my election as the tenth Bishop of Bradford was confirmed in a (mostly legal) ceremony at York Minster. Having a bit of time to kill before the service and legal ceremony, we went to have a look at the David Hockney exhibition in the City Art Gallery.
You go in through the front doors (not surprisingly) and ahead of you is a large room with a fifty-panel painting mounted on one wall: Bigger Trees Near Warter. On the facing wall there are explanations of process and there are computer displays explaining how and why Hockney set about this task in the first place.
What is interesting about the enormous painting is that it depicts an ordinary scene on the bend of a road near some buildings in North Yorkshire. It is the sort of place I have driven through many times and not noticed. Whereas I see a bit of countryside that has to be driven through if I am to get from where I was to where I want to be, Hockney sees a scene that captures the nature or spirit of a particular environment. I see ‘shallow’ and functionally; Hockney sees ‘deep’ and artistically. This might be because he is looking for somewhere to paint and I am keeping my eyes on the bendy, narrow roads – but you get my point.
I was musing on this while looking at the painting in the art gallery. Sometimes what we are looking for determines (or, at the very least, influences) what we see or how we look. And the gift of the artist is to invite us to look differently and see places (or things) differently. The artist asks us to look through a different lens and risk the potential for changing our perspective, having seen the object differently. It is what the Bible calls ‘repentance’ – changing how we look in order to change the way we see in order to change the way we think in order to change the way we live.
My wife remarked that Hockney “takes the ordinary, sees it differently, and makes it monumental”.
The second thing that struck me about Hockney’s work was an easily-missed comment on one of the explanatory panels in the gallery. His method involves observing, then painting very quickly. When you are doing this with fifty panels it is possible to end up with several large, wet panels at one time. So, he and his assistant had to modify their vehicle and construct a frame in the back so that these panels could be transported in whatever condition and without damage or compromise. Questioned about the characteristic spontaneity of his painting method, Hockey replied: “You’ve really got to prepare if you’re going to be spontaneous.”
It’s one of those annoying things that the people who make life look easy are those who have dug deep foundations and prepared well. Preparation is everything. The radio and TV presenter Chris Evans describes in It’s Not What You Think, the excellent first part of his two-volume autobiography, how his radio programmes are meticulously prepared for using pie charts. He only manages to get the effect of spontaneity because the whole thing is broken down into smaller units and is thoroughly prepared. It is impressive to see it in action.
Spontaneity is sometimes used as an excuse for laziness. A politician might be tempted to ‘wing it’ – or (he says…) a preacher to ruminate from the wells of experience, but we usually get found out. We become repetitive, uninspiring or embarrassed when questioned. Preparing for a radio documentary interview a month or so ago (for Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday on BBC Radio 4 – going out in May), I checked basic facts, read lyrics and even bought three CDs I had last owned on tape. The interviewer turned up in my office the next morning with books, CDs and other resources and was surprised to find I didn’t need them – I had thoroughly prepared and knew what I was talking about (or limited what we did talk about to what I knew…). He kept remarking on it – much to my surprise as I couldn’t imagine doing the interview without having done my own research.
OK, I’ve winged it with the best and the rest of them. I’ve occasionally got away with murder and also know what it feels like to be found out – faced in front of a camera or microphone with a question for which I was not prepared. I’ve also been arrogant enough to think people would be interested in my unique perspective, only to find from their body language that I was mistaken.
As Tony Blair might have said (but didn’t): ‘Preparation, preparation, preparation’.