I am writing this on a flight from Manchester to Atlanta, Georgia, where I will connect to Roanoke, Virginia, and spend a week visiting the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia which is linked with the Diocese of Bradford.
The only interesting bit of the flight so far was hearing two stewards agreeing that they “love the English accent”. “Which one?” was the question I wanted to ask. One of the amazing glories of England is that such a small island comprises so many distinct accents and dialects. I always pitied the German language Assistentin who came to Liverpool in the 1970s and, having spent too long in the company of Scouse teenagers, left feeling that she couldn’t understand a word of English after all. Ask about accent and you ask about the amazing history that makes it almost impossible to define what it means to be ‘English’.
Anyway, I was reading Thursday’s Guardian on my iPad and was struck by the piece by Martin Kettle on the newly-opened Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy in London which I long to see. I love David Hockney’s work: the vibrancy, the colour, the perception of a landscape as the seasons change, the transparency of the everyday and the banal that makes you look and think differently about what you take for granted in the familiar world around you every day.
Hockney celebrates drawing because… drawing is an instinctive human act from an early age, and because teaching someone to draw better is to teach them to see better. He does not add that to see better is to understand better, and thus to communicate better, but it is implicit and central to everything else.
I remember taking a holiday with my young family in Gloucestershire when I was working as a linguist specialist in Cheltenham in the early 1980s. My wife was dabbling in art and understood the importance of drawing. She made me sit down for two hours, without distraction, and draw an orange. OK, miss out the bit where she asked me why I had drawn a banana, but I learned two important lessons: (a) when you are drawing, you concentrate and focus – and you look differently at the world; and (b) there are different ways of looking and seeing.
How would you draw a chair? An ordinary, bog-standard, unremarkable upright chair? Well, I started to look at the legs, the backrest, the seat. I tried to use a simple technique to get the perspective right. After an hour or so of drawing something rather naff, the artist told me to start again and to look differently. She told me to draw the spaces between the seat and the legs and the backrest – out of those spaces the object would emerge.
And she was right. In fact, the chair looked more real and alive than it did when I tried to draw the object itself.
I think my point here is that we shouldn’t take for granted the way we look at what we think we see. This has a theological import, too. Sometimes we need to take our eye off the presenting object and look at the ‘space’ in order to see more accurately (or, at least, more interestingly) what is before us.
It was this that made me look at Mark’s Gospel differently several years ago (while writing Marking Time). The point of the gospel (and the filter through which to read the text and understand Jesus) is to be found in chapter one verses 14-15:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
For the Galileans, the only evidence that God was among his people again – that there was truly good news to be heard – was that the blasphemous Roman occupying forces were leaving. But Jesus asks people to look differently. The question now looks like this: “Can you possibly dare to believe that the holy God is here among you again… even while the profane Roman pagans remain? Dare you conceive of the possibility that God might be with you… even while your problems persist and resolution seems either impossible or, at least, remote? Dare you look differently (for the presence of God) in order to see differently in order to think differently (about God, the world and us) in order to live differently in the real world as it is now, but with a driving vision/narrative that imagines a different future?
The rest of the Gospel illustrates just who were those who could ‘repent’ (literally, from the Greek) ‘change their mind’… and who were those who just could not. Read it in this way and see the rather shocking picture that emerges.
Hockney is bewilderingly brilliant and exciting. I don’t look at a bend in a Yorkshire road and see orange fields and technicolor trees as he does. But he compels me to ask whether I am missing something in the world around me simply because I don’t stop and look and question and wonder.
Martin Kettle’s observation has wider pertinence:
… it seems to me that Hockney and his art express and address the kind of people and country that he and we wish we were. There is something religious in his work. And when Hockney takes a pop at Hirst, I, for one, will cheer, because he is taking a pop at the kind of country we have become, in which attitude is more important than morality, price trumps value, and in which to shock and make a name is privileged over doing something lovely or true.