Not so simply sublime

The Sublime in Art (Tate Britain from May 2010): an exhibition that takes us beyond ‘art is what I like’ to asking why it is we like it. Like it or not, we’re into aesthetics. 

Discussions of the Sublime in art usually start with Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (punchy title), and the Tate in this case does just that. 

Turner’s storms and shipwrecks and de Loutherberg’s avalanches, Francis Danby’s biblical flood, Joseph Ward’s Gordale Scar and John Martin’s Last Judgement, they all take us to the edge – to a dramatic point where (in imagination) we fear for our very existence. The walls of Gordale Scar are unnaturally, threateningly high. The imploding earth at the Day of Reckoning is terminal. Awe also belongs to the Sublime, and Martin’s plains of heaven take the breath away. 

But the exhibition loses its way a little. 

John Collier’s North-West Passage focuses on Hudson adrift in his boat, Richard Dadd’s Return From Egypt pushes the boundaries of sanity (his own), Millais’s Dew-Drenched Furze and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix celebrate love in very different ways. Any connection with the Sublime is tenuous.  All are mid-19th century or later, and we’re stretching definitions and timeframes here.

We’re closer with William Blake’s Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils. (Some title.) Hogarth has Satan and Death confronting each other, separated only by Sin. Two paintings bringing the Bible and Paradise Lost frighteningly to life. But even here there’s not the identification with experience that the Sublime needs really to make an impact. Blake and Hogarth’s are descriptive paintings, whereas we can imagine ourselves caught up in Danby’s flood or de Loutherberg’s avalanche. 

What about Orpen’s desolate World War I landscape, Zonnebeke. Sublime? 

Arguably it would have been better to have stayed closer to 18th century definitions, when Beauty, with its focus on form, the Sublime and the Picturesque came to define aesthetic sensibility. We’d have then had a real contribution to an understanding of the Sublime in art, rather than a catch-all from the Tate’s collection. Even if we define it as Romantic art, the net is still cast too wide.

I loved the paintings and the juxtapositions ask important questions. But as an exhibition on the Sublime as a movement, a period, a sensibility – well, to me it doesn’t quite work.

How rude is Britannia’s health?

Caricature has been alive and well since the 17th century and especially since Hogarth’s time. That’s a message that comes over loud and clear in the Tate’s Rude Britannia exhibition (June 2010). There’s an attempt to divide into sections – bawdy, absurd, political, social satire – but the simpler characterisation is political and social.

Punch defined a century of British life (I loved Charles Spencelayh’s Laughing Parson, chuckling over his copy of Punch), and Lee Baxendale lampooned all our schooldays brilliantly with the Bash Street kinds. Viz took us places where DC Thomson no longer could.

But even Viz, thirty years on, seems quite gentle and playful. Political caricature isn’t. Buttocks and wind featured large for Gillray and Rowlandson, with royalty the very literal butt of their humour. Nothing quite so blatant these days. Spitting Image, Scarfe and Steadman stand out. Martin Rowson too. Tony Blair is a godsend: few have fallen so far, and few have a smile and a gauntness that gives so much help.

On the downside there are sketchy contributions from the likes of David Shrigley which are for the most part facile and tell us nothing. Sarah Lucas has a depressing self-assurance, and short films try patience. Caricature is all about immediacy. As with satire there’s a strong intelligence that characterises the best, a relevance and impact, a stretching of truth that nonetheless never loses touch with reality.

Talking of stretching – there’s Major’s stretched underpants, Blair’s stretched smile, Robert Walpole’s stretched buttocks. You don’t have to stretch to much, a nose here, a jawline there, and that’s enough. Scarfe and Steadman went further of course, but they’re exceptions.  For both satire and caricature it’s the little push, the little stretch that pays the biggest dividend.

The incredible shrinking public sector…

There’s a lot of heat and not too much light in the debate about the public sector at the moment.  What we don’t get is balance – the pros and cons. I’m less worried about entitlements, more concerned to establish what a sensible limit to the public sector should be.

One current shibboleth: public sector workers are overpaid and over-pensioned.  The truth: some are, some senior execs are, most aren’t, most get by. They’ve accepted long years of being relatively underpaid (though with the prospect of a good pension) and now pay is better they find themselves pilloried – with a broad perception that they’re a) parasitical and b) doing work that’s dispensable.  

Another: hit the management hard, protect the front line. There’s a perception out there that you can get rid of the support staff and managers and leave the front line untouched. Maybe, but then the nurses will have much less time for patients, and teachers for pupils.

And a third: the private sector should take on public sector roles. In the health service, schools, defence? Some areas the state does much much better.

Let’s think for a moment about what everyone does in the private sector. Technology and efficiencies and outsourcing mean there are many fewer productive, fewer manufacturing jobs in the private sector these days.  Jobs are in the service sector, maybe (maybe not) add to the quality of life, but aren’t productive in the ordinary sense of the word. Now, wouldn’t it be better if we were paying a little more into schools and NHS budget (if wisely spent) – and less buying new fridges or a gourmet meal or even a Big Mac twice a week? We need a productive, value-adding base to the economy but it simply can’t be the size it used to be. Just what are the private-sector jobs that everyone will be doing if we have public expenditure down to 40% of GDP – and full(ish) employment? Will they be jobs worth doing? And conversely, easily shaken out as soon as the economy turns down?

All the talk is about work and employment, but the reality is as it has been for decades that most of us have more and more leisure on our hands. We’ve sidelined a debate that goes back to Veblen, and has an immediate relevance.

Back to the public sector. Hit it too hard and we do a lot of damage. We’re in a world of portfolio workers, short-term contracts, outsourcing, a world where loyalty, trust and commitment are much harder to find. That may be inevitable for the private sector these days, but must it be for the public sector, with all its public-facing roles?  We must make certain it isn’t.

And a concomitant: if we’re not showing loyalty and commitment in our working lives, what chance our lives in our local community? We’re in danger of losing the habit – if we even still have it – of getting out there. The big society looks increasingly like a graft that won’t take.

The public sector isn’t sacrosanct. Staffing levels and pensions will and should take a hit. But for all our sakes we should tread carefully.

When I’m 66…

Now, I’m not there yet but I think retirement could be a pretty cool place to be. But when I get there I don’t want to find a younger and clueless generation have messed it up.

I’d written most of this by the way before today’s announcement about increasing the pension age to 66….

Good, says the Economist, for older people to continue working, good for their health, happiness and for tax reasons.  Patronising stuff. Most people when they get to their late 60s are slowing down physically a little, let’s be honest about that. And with less energy they’re supposed to compete with a younger generations of workers who have the energy – and don’t want older people around, certainly their bosses don’t.

At the same time as pensioners are urged back on to the job market we have 25% reductions in government departmental budgets promised, with a big job shakeout, so there will be just a few more people out there looking for the jobs which the older generation is trying to cling on to – or get back into.

In times of boom conditions and full employment (which are cyclical) there might be jobs. But not now.

Much talk also of part-time jobs: yes, that makes sense, but we’re a million years from a world where employers start negotiating pared-back, reduced-time contracts. How would this work in practice, and just what would these part-timers, coming in two or three days a week, or arriving at 10 and leaving at 4, do?

Yes, it’s true, employers haven’t begun to buy into this notion, and unless we completely re-think the workplace they’re not likely to. We can all think of the sector we know best. Mine is book publishing, a profession where people tend to disappear after 40. Teaching: just how many teachers are still at their best in their 60s? Teaching the pre-tens and teens puts a unique stress on you. Basic office work: it’s possible, but just how long can anyone keep pushing paper for?

There’s much talk of the voluntary sector, of people getting out there and creating the big society. Polls tell us most people don’t want to get involved, as workers and parents they haven’t too much time. Who are the best people for getting involved in voluntary social activity – all that helping, caring, support, charity shops and much more? I’d suggest retired people in their 60s and 70s, putting in substantial amounts of time each week, but at their own pace.

We’ve also heard a lot recently about the babies of baby boomers getting back at the parents who have apparently done so well, benefiting from the irresponsible levels of debt built up over fifty years. There’s more than a touch of ageism here and in the wider argument. It’s a younger generation making assumptions about an older generation. Sadly there’s onlyKen Clarke there among the politicians to speak up – and he’s out of the policy loop.

Not for a moment am I arguing there isn’t a huge pension problem. But answers have to deal with realities of life as you live it in your 60s and not with the way others’ might imagine it.

There ain’t no fence to sit on

Obama describes BP as reckless. On the other hand it seems that BP were no better or worse prepared than other oil companies operating in the USA. But Obama has no choice.

The US media, and I’m sure much of the UK media would do the same, wants a scapegoat, and they’ve attached Obama to BP. They enjoyed bringing down Bush over Katrina, and in a spirit of fairness they want to bring Obama down to. In a spirit of unfairness too – how much is Obama guilty of anything other than maybe appearing too aloof?

BP is an easy target. They’re learning on the job – how to contain the uncontainable in the full glare of the media. That their MD is still standing and talking and fighting is a testimony to the strength of the guy.

So as a Brit I’d argue we should recognise that responsibility is shared, and work together, not against each other.  And yet, the real world has BP hanging one-hand clinging over a cliff and they’re pulling Obama down with them. He’s got to let them fall.

Obama has a clear history-based belief in American destiny, American exceptionalism.  (Whether or not we as Brits share any of it is another matter, but in adopting him as one of ours as we’ve been tempted to do we should always remember  – he’s an American first.) But there’s another interpretation of that destiny, and Fox and tea-parties and the small government anti-Washington lobby, all espouse it.

BP is the current touchstone of that conflict, and there isn’t a fence to sit on.

His speech Wednesday (16th) from the Oval Office underlines that point. He is right to link it to an opening an opportunity to change energy policy forever – which means to plan it more, to reduce dependence on overseas energy sources but not at the cost of further unregulated offshore production. He’s trying to take the America people on the back of the current crisis to somewhere they haven’t been. It will be interesting to see – and critical – how many go with him.

Envy and all that negative stuff

Are those out of power post-election envious of those now in power? Nigel Warburton in the June edition of Prospect thinks they are.

He refers to Bertrand Russell’s argument that envy is the driving force of democracy. ‘That’s not fair’ are among our earliest words, and we envy what others have right through to adulthood.

But envy and all the negative emotions that go with it are only half the story.

If we reject compassion as a feeble Christian virtue as Nietzsche did then envy does indeed have the field to itself. But if we allow compassion a central role in our lives then it’s a different story.

Our daily lives and our political lives are entirely different if we see our natural condition as co-operation rather than struggle.

Envy is of course always with us, but there’s envy that we shrug at and accept and envy that is visceral and turns into hatred. Warburton chooses (maybe just to make a clever point) to make no mention of compassion and accepts envy as a blanket term, with no gradations. He allows in his short piece no other human condition.

Envy maybe has a restraining role to play. But in a working democracy basic human feelings such as compassion, caring and a sense of justice can and should transform the exercise of power.

So post-election, let’s forget the belly-aching. Put envy behind us, not indulge it. Think positive. Quite apart from anything else, it’s easier that way.


David and Ed Miliband at a news conference earlier today, disagreeing with each other on Trident, and whether they should hold to a pre-election manifesto commitment and keep it….

At the end we got a high-five, a clasping of hands and a brotherly hug. It made me wonder what would have happened if my brother and I had stood for the same office. Would we have shown such brotherly love? I guess we might have. (Needs a second opinion this one.)

It reminded me of two stories from Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. One very virtuous abbot was at the same time very human: he couldn’t get over his anger with his brother. Another couldn’t get angry with anyone, let alone his brother, and felt that he had to, otherwise his faith and his sanctity couldn’t be tested. He tried to get angry, and he failed.

I think in this case the Milibands got it right, and it was in a curious way good to see. This is probably the first and last time they’ll be compared to the desert fathers. They should be grateful!

 Cameron and Clegg act like new-found brothers of course. We have a new breed of brothers.