This Rough Magic

De Lacy Arts Lecture, Bradford Cathedral

3 November 2021

Studying Shakespeare’s The Tempest for A Level was, at first, a disappointment. I had hoped to be assigned one of the great tragedies or histories: Julius Caesar or Henry V or King Lear, for example. Something with big characters, lots of blood and rousing speeches that change the world. Instead, I thought, I got a fantasy about magic and shipwrecks and fairies.

My introduction to the Bard at O Level had been Macbeth and I have never been able to escape the haunting warning of the consequences of the king’s “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” – a warning that seems to have eluded some of our senior politicians in recent times. The memory of Lady Macbeth is also difficult to shake off: driven towards madness by vicarious destructive ambition, and left with blood on her hands and torment in her soul.

Here we have characters who embody hope and shame, hubris and failure, affection and violent hatred. As they walk the stage in front of us they draw us into both the contingency of human character and relationships whilst exposing slowly the corrupting power of power itself. TheMacbeths display what we might call a utilitarian view of humanity in which we use people as commodities for the satisfaction of our own desires and cravings. Even on the page, if not on the stage, Shakespeare confronts us with ourselves – our raw humanity, the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, the complexity of ethics, and so on – and all this in words and speech and rubric.

If the song is right and “a picture paints a thousand words”, then the converse is also true: a word can paint a thousand pictures. I’ll return to this later.

I soon got over the disappointment at A Level. The Tempest was a revelation. It was less the plot and more the language that caught my reluctant attention and teased my imagination.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” “What’s past is prologue.” “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; / And my ending is despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” I could go on.

This lecture is not, however, about Shakespeare or language per se. But, I took the title from this play because ‘This rough magic’ seems to me to describe both the importance and nature of art and the arts. Magic? Because the arts refuse to be constrained by measurable sense or economic metrics; rather, they sneak around the protective walls of reason and commodity, and fire or tease or shock the imagination in ways that cannot be captured readily. The arts touch the imagination, engage emotion (often involuntarily), stimulate association, and go beyond what is merely measurable.

Whichever form of art we choose to peruse, we find ourselves invited into a place of what I would call ‘new seeing’. John Berger’s work on this is seminal and I won’t try to repeat it here. But, engaging with art – either in the creation of it or in interacting with it – draws from us a response. This response might be visceral; on the other hand, it might be indifferent. Yet, even indifference is a particular response to what is seen or heard. Let me illustrate briefly.

I am not a visual artist. I know what I like and I like what I know. While working in Paris in 1978-9 I used to visit a different wing of the Louvre every Sunday afternoon. Why? Because entry was free and I was skint. Week after week I returned to the Impressionists, then housed in the Jeu de Paume in the Tuilleries Gardens. Here I would stand as close as possible to the Manets and Monets before stepping back to see how the dabs and strokes made sense only from a distance; but, I wanted to see how the paint had been applied in the detail that formed a bigger picture. I fell in love with Van Gogh and the deep, tortured paint strokes that seemed hewn out of the canvas rather than applied to it. I admit, his story was one I found deeply moving.

(It was also here that I stood next to an American tourist who told his wife that ‘Haystacks’ was “kinda cute” – to which she responded: “You do this room, I’ll do the next one, then we’ve seen everything.” I still haven’t recovered.)

I was lost in other periods of art history, but loved the Impressionists. Of course, I have grown up since then, have travelled the world and visited galleries of all sorts. But, my ignorance keeps growing. Hence my enthusiasm when the Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral, Professor Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College, London) addressed clergy study days here in the Diocese of Leeds by showing us several paintings and introducing us to the language employed by the artist. I don’t know how to ‘read’ the art unless someone teaches me the language … teaches me to look differently in order to see differently in order to think differently about God, the world and us. The iconography demands curiosity and learning; the language needs to be interpreted before I can get beyond merely ‘liking’ it or not. I don’t always ‘see’ until I am enabled to ‘look’.

Likewise with poetry. I grew up hearing constantly how important poetry is, but not being introduced to the adventure of language itself – of words that can open or close the imagination. One of my favourite singer-songwriters is the Canadian Bruce Cockburn, now in his seventies. Thirty years ago he wrote a song called ‘Maybe the poet’ in which he suggests that every society needs its poets – people who use word and rhythm to open our eyes and ears and imagination to the echoes of an immeasurable depth of reality and experience and understanding. Musicians and poets, he asserts, shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently. Don’t get locked into your prejudiced viewing point: “Male, female, slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

I once did a script on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 when Billy Ocean was the guest musician in the studio. I knew he would do his most famous song at some point, so I pre-empted it with my script. Instead of “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, I offered “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry”. And I was serious. Poets use words and images that steal behind the defences and have the power to move, shake, surprise or shock us – placing a subtle question mark over what we have considered to be ‘normal’ or assumed to be ‘just the way it is’. Sigmund Freud once observed: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” It is the poets who face themselves with honesty and express what they see.

I could be confident about this because the Christian tradition is rooted in poetry – in the words of the American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, “words that linger, texts that explode”. When Israel is in exile and longing for a home they might never see again, it is the poets who bring challenge and comfort, hope and realism. These prophets use language to help the suffering face their reality, not escape from it. It is their words that haunt the imagination of a bereft people over generations, scratching away at the memory and opening up the cracks of the hint of a possibility of a future.

Maybe a clue to the power of the arts lies precisely here – in the cracks. In the broken places and broken people whose recorded experience presents us with an opportunity to look through a different lens at our own experience of the world. It was the late and very great Leonard Cohen who sang (in ‘Anthem’): “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” The poets go beyond rational semantics; they open up the cracks in order to let light get in. Of course, we also have the freedom to fill in the cracks in order to stop such subversive things happening again.

Again, this is how the Psalms work. These are songs and poems I read every day, whether I feel like it or not, and regardless of whether they seem apposite to my own circumstances or mood at the time. They provide a vocabulary for praise, lament, joy, fear, longing, confusion, lostness, foundness, hope, dread, and so on. Jesus taught using words to paint pictures – stories and images that make the hearer do the work of thinking and imagining … if, of course, the hearer can be bothered. Poetry, in this sense, is demanding. It is also indifferent to response … which is the responsibility of the hearer or reader. In this sense, it takes people seriously as adults who need both to play with words and ideas and to change their world, if not the world.

I have dwelt on poetry because words have been my own trade and language has been my interest, both professionally and personally. I recall starting my modern languages degree at university (in German and French) and being told by a professor: “There is no point learning a language unless you have something worth saying in it.” I took the point. Which is why we then had to study not only literature, but also history, politics, economics, philosophy, and so on. In other words, words matter. But, words are not an end in themselves; rather, used well, they have the potential to change the world.

Poetry, like art, has the power to be subversive. Bracha L Ettinger put it like this: “Art adds an ethical quality to the act of witnessing.” This was said in the context of how art functions in the face of atrocity and makes the point that neither the artist nor the audience can be ethically neutral. Try standing in front of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and look only at the texture of the paint, ignoring the horror of what the paint depicts. This is where the artist invites the viewer to become a moral agent and not just a spectator. We can easily become numbed by the stream of utterly shocking stories of abuse of children by churches; but you only have to look at Kent Monkman’s painting The Scream (2017) to be confronted with the horror of what happened to children in Canada who, between the 1880s and 1990s, were torn from their families and taken to Catholic residential schools where appalling sexual, emotional and physical abuse took place behind the walls of what should have been a sanctuary. As Susan Sontag put it: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous.”

Here we come back to the cracks. It is not only what we see in a painting – or hear through the words of a poem – that matters, but, also, what is left out. That is the power of good art: the silence speaks, the white space articulates, what is missing is eloquent by its very absence. Let me illustrate with a simple story.

When I was still in my mid-twenties, married with two very young children, my artist wife tried, on holiday, to slow me down. She asked me to draw an apple which she placed on a table in front of me. I did my best, but when she returned she asked why I had drawn a banana. I was aware of my limitations. But, what it taught me is that drawing demands attention being focused only on the object being drawn. You have to think not only about what it is (or what it signifies), but how it might be represented in a different medium. In other words, the artist has to look carefully, pay attention to how light plays on it, recognise shape and form and texture. It is the looking that changes.

The second thing she did was ask me to draw a chair. I did. It was a joke. When she came back into the room she gave me a new piece of paper and asked me to now draw the spaces between and around the elements of the chair. What emerged was less sharp, but more like a chair. It was in the space – the cracks, the gaps – that the form and the meaning emerged. It taught me to look differently. And I began to apply the same discipline to poetry, language, writing, music, theology, and so on. The absence is a presence, the silence is substance.

In this context, the musician Brian Eno spoke of the need for the artist to know when to stop, what to leave out. He said: “Having no silence in music is like having no black or white in a painting.” Henri Matisse claimed: “I don’t paint things, I only paint the difference between things.” Marcel Duchamp: “It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.” Grayson Perry questions the anaesthetising nature of how some art is appropriated in a culture that lacks confidence in what he calls “measuring subjective experiences”; he asserts that our lack of confidence in how to understand our own experience leads us to rely on brands that tell us what is good and how to be happy. He calls for greater emotional intelligence and less reliance on prefabricated and manipulative brands to shape our worlds of meaning.

And, so, we are back to the role and power of art to challenge and subvert our comfort or expectations – opening up the gaps and cracks, beckoning us to stay with the silences and live with the absences. Ben Quash says: “Works that ambush you are religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward for your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does. It should want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should – it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are.”

And, I would add, what goes for religious art goes also for any art form. We can recognise the form and the pattern, but only in order to be compelled – or, at least, invited – to ask if that recognition is adequate. The American novelist and cultural commentator, Marilynne Robinson, said: “Sometimes people who subscribe to goodness in a programmatic way are resistant to surprise. Christianity is subversive in that sense. Christ became a slave. That undercuts cultural assumptions about what is valuable, what the hierarchies are. Art reproduces that great overturning whenever it is good art.” Rowan Williams observes that this subversiveness is rooted in grace: “It’s about the church being hospitable to difficult voices and difficult images,” he says.

“Art is the lie that reveals the truth,” said Picasso. Bertolt Brecht observed that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And James Baldwin gets to the point when he points out that: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.”

What I have been considering here about art and poetry comes together in a fundamental respect for the imagination. I remember being at a board meeting of an international insurance group when we were introduced to the notion of ‘stochastic modelling’, a tool used by insurance companies to posit different global scenarios (1 in 50, 1 in 100 or 1in 200 year weather events, for example) in order to do the actuarial work that underpins underwriting policies. I am not very good at such things, but the penny eventually dropped and I said: “Ah, I see. It’s an exercise in imagination.” My colleagues began to object until I made the point that ‘imagination’ is not fantasy; it is not ‘making things up’ that aren’t there. Imagining what is not actual is actually a distinguishing feature of what it means to be self-reflectively human. Albert Einstein put it like this: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” Or, as Brian Eno (quoted earlier) says: “What is possible in art becomes thinkable in life.”

CS Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, writes: “We can’t hold faith entirely in our hands, we must creatively imagine it. … We are inveterate poets.” He goes on to suggest that the theatre is a gymnasium for underused imaginations.

Media expert and current chairman of ITV, Peter Bazalgette, makes the connection between the exercise of imagination, the arts and education when he says: “There’s a strong relationship between arts and cultural engagement and educational attainment. We see an improvement in literacy when young people take part in drama and library activities, and better performance in maths and languages when they take part in structured music activities.” Sir Anthony Gormley agrees: “Perhaps the most important argument for the centrality of art in education is that the art room can become a zone dedicated to the exercise of curiosity, a place where the instincts of questioning can find their own paths to language. What happens when I mix this with that? How does what happens affect me / how does it affect others?”

But, if art is so important to human culture, promotion of the social good, critical moral development, political narrative formation, individual growth in depth and imagination, then why are the arts and humanities being apparently devalued in the sphere of public policy in the United Kingdom? If the lockdowns of the last couple of years promoted an explosion of creativity in some homes and in the media, government also suggested that artists should consider retraining to “work in cyber”. The repeated pleas and warnings by artists, actors and musicians – performers dependent on travel for their living, along with all those needed to enable them to perform – for consideration during the Brexit negotiations were derided as just more ‘Project Fear’. That is, until it became impossible for artists to travel in Europe because of the new cost and bureaucratic impositions that Brexit enforced. Freelancers – which most working artists are – found that they were not valued and had not been considered as priorities as ‘deals’ were being done with the European Union. The despair of many artists was obvious as they felt overlooked and undervalued in the political machinations of shaking a fist at Europe.

What this oversight ignored was the economic value of the arts to this country. The arts not only flew the flag for a global Britain, but also contributed to our soft power around the world as well as making a direct and enormous economic contribution to our domestic GDP. But, you wouldn’t have thought this to be the case while witnessing the marginalising of the sector in negotiations over deals. Numerous questions were asked in Parliament, reports and evidence accumulated, and attention was brought to bear far too late. Yet, this is not the main point of my observations. The import of this phenomenon is that the arts were assumed to be economically irrelevant, suggesting that the political radar is biased against areas of life that serve the common good whilst being considered of low value in the cogs and wheels of economic thinking.

Let’s be clear, as the London-based academic Rishi Trikha has written: … “the underlying belief that creative jobs are a frivolous hobby, staffed by people who are unserious and low-skilled, has persisted for a long time. … The creative industries and cultural sector contribute over £143 billion to the UK economy every year, in addition to secondary benefits to hospitality businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The digital sector is worth £149 billion, so the idea that artists should hang up their dance shoes and get a ‘real job’ is based on prejudice rather than facts.”

Culture and the arts do not need to be justified by economics; but, if economics are assumed to be the only or main criterion for valuing people and work, then it is right to question the assumptions and be honest about the economic benefits derived from the arts. In this context I commend Darren Henley, CEO of Arts Council England, and his book The Arts Dividend Revisited in which he identifies seven benefits that funding culture can bring to a society.*

What does it mean, then, to live in a culture in which public policy appears to be marginalising the arts as a public good? Several months ago a university vice-chancellor, Professor Todd Walker, spoke unashamedly of getting rid of what he called ‘vanity courses’ from universities. His actual words were: “The days of having a vanity course are over. We’re not here to study something for which there is no direct employment, growing market or sector.” He later apologised, but the damage was done and the game had been given away. (One commentator described his views as “utilitarian crap”.) What happened to the notion of a university as a locus of education, learning, thinking, development of critical faculties, cultural development, and so on? This is consistent with a way of thinking that values only that which is measurable economically. It assumes that unless a university course leads directly to a job that brings an income, it serves no purpose – that if it is not vocational (in the sense of training the subject to fulfil a function), it is discardable.

You can see where this is going. Teachers at every level of education have been complaining for years that ‘Ausbildung’ has transplanted ‘Erziehung’ – that is, education has been elided into mere training. Where music, art and playing are seen as a distraction from the real business of ‘learning’, we should not be surprised to dig a little way down and find an anthropology that is fundamentally utilitarian. Is learning really about cultivating the capacity and skills for thinking about life and its meaning – or is it simply about getting a job to feed the economy? Is learning more about gaining wisdom than accumulating data? Peter Bazalgette observes again that removal of a collective memory, cultivated by the arts as an essential part of society, leaves us with “a society bereft of a national conversation … about its identity or anything else.”

These are vital questions at a time when the arts and humanities are being diminished in public policy as being of less importance than, for example, economics or engineering. To be fairly crude about it: when the engineer finishes constructing ‘things’ and systems, what feeds his or her soul? Where does the music come from if music is merely an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing or can afford to study a ‘vanity course’? What feeds the person who the engineer is? And to what end is the engineering itself a means?

If, as I would argue, the common good is served by human beings – in society – being treated as more than economic cogs in a productive wheel, then the arts are essential to building a good society in which human persons, individually and together, can thrive. The arts are not an optional extra. In this sense, the arts – and society as a whole, if it wants to thrive – must push back against the insidious assumption that a market economy can slide effortlessly into a market society. The former has to do with economic choices; the latter with preventing the economy (seen in purely financial or industrial terms) from being seen as an end in itself. Put simply: does the economy exist for the good of society, or does society exist for the sake of the economy? As we observed earlier in this lecture, the point of human society is people and their communal thriving; the economy is a means to that (greater) end, not an end in itself.

The title of this lecture, taken (as I explained at the beginning) from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is incomplete. “This rough magic” is not just an evocative phrase that, I suggest, provokes thinking about art and drama and meaning and music and language. Prospero actually says: “This rough magic which I abjure…” He is renouncing it, abandoning the rough magic, letting go of the art. But, as a friend pointed out to me when discussing these themes and that phrase, this ‘abjuring’ can be understood in two ways: first – negatively – as a turning away from that which has now, through experience, become devalued – a source of doubt or disillusionment; secondly – positively – as the abandonment of one way of looking at, seeing, thinking about and understanding the world … because art has opened up a new way, an alternative perspective, a new (or renewed) vision of how the world is or might become.

I think this is what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was suggesting when he wrote: “A man shall hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”

Here I want to put particular weight onto this notion of beauty. Not a beauty that avoids the horrors and ugliness of the world, but a beauty that defies that ugliness because it inspires an imagination of what might be. Art can never be satisfied with what is. This is why, as  Christian, I am fired up by the scriptures in which art and beauty are praised – think of the elaborate design of the tabernacle and the temple, shaped by artists in an ancient world. Jesus teaches using stories that, once told, have been given away to the hearers. He sows images in the mind that scratch away when propositional statements have long been forgotten. I would go as far as to say that the key to the kingdom of God is not adherence to any particular dogma, but, rather, that curiosity that opens the imagination and is bold enough to – in gospel terms – walk up the beach with the Jesus who calls us into the journey without giving us any guarantees about what lies ahead.

This is, indeed, rough magic. The temptation is always to smooth it out and polish it. The genius is to explore it, even if, later, we choose to abjure it.

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* enhancing the nation’s creativity; improving education; advancing health & wellbeing; supporting innovation and technology; regenerating villages, towns and cities; contributing to economic growth; building a reputation for cultural excellence on the global stage. (He goes on to say that creativity and culture bring people together, support local economies and make our lives better. But, while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.)

“Poetry is like fish. If it’s fresh, it’s good. If it’s stale, it’s bad. If you’re unsure, try it out on the cat.” (Osbert Sitwell)

“Faith precedes understanding.” (Augustine)

“The work of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon)