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In the first scene of The Pitmen Painters, set in the coal-mining town of Ashington in the 1930s, a group of miners have organised an after-work art appreciation class. The professor arrives and begins to give a slightly snooty lecture about Renaissance technique, but he’s quickly stopped by the leader of the group. They don’t want to hear about how painting is done, he explains. They just want to be able to look at a picture on a wall and know whether or not it’s any good.
I went to see The Pitmen Painters last week, and so this nervous attitude to culture was already in my head when my housemate the actuary turned to me a few nights ago and announced that he wanted to get into poetry, but he was afraid he wouldn’t understand what it was all about. At school, he explained, they were always talking about what poetry meant. What did he need to know, he asked, to be able to understand it?
My housemate may be part of the very suit-wearing, sushi-eating bourgeoisie that the Pitmen spend a lot of time railing against, but their worries about culture aren’t actually worlds apart. There is an assumption, encouraged by the way the arts are taught in schools, that works of art have to mean a particular thing that certain people (defined as those who have the correct, sanctioned bits of difficult-to-understand information in their heads) get and all the rest don’t.
As an English MA student, I’m one of the ones who should be in the know, but even I remember spending what felt like unbroken centuries of torment sitting in an English lesson waiting for someone to tell the teacher what the bird in Tennyson’s The Eagle represented. It occurred to me then, and it still does now, that no matter what ideas Tennyson may have had in his own head about the significance of eagles in general or that eagle in particular, there was no real reason why I or anyone else couldn’t just read the poem as being about an eagle.
There’s a great bit in The Pitmen Painters, after the men have moved on from appreciating art to trying to make some themselves, when they all gather round to critique each other’s work. One of them has done a very nice painting of a Bedlington Terrier standing in a garden. The size of it in relation to the scenery around shows the importance of dogs to the working men of Ashington, says someone. The painting is trying to convey something about the simple beauty in everyday life, says someone else. No, says the man who made it. I just wanted to paint a Bedlington Terrier. And I ran out of space on the board to do the surroundings properly.
This perfectly sums up two (slightly contrasting) things I believe about the arts – first, that there’s no reason why something shouldn’t be both simple and interesting, and second, that there’s not really a meaning at all.
You can look at Millais’s Ophelia, for example, and perfectly validly see a scene from Shakespeare, or the model who nearly froze to death posing for it in a bathtub in the middle of winter, or just a girl inexplicably drowning in very shallow water while surrounded by extremely ornate foliage. Similarly, if you know about Leda and Zeus you’ll be able to literally understand the story Yeats is telling in Leda and the Swan. Even if you don’t, the poem works just as well as a description of what it’s like to be assaulted by an enormous and angry bird. I completely admit that I have no real idea what is going on in Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, but that does not stop me finding it both amazingly colourful and completely hilarious (Google it and you won’t be disappointed).
In fact, the more confusing something is, the more you are free to decide what you think it’s about. The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot keeps coming up on the courses I take, and the more I read it, and read what’s written about it, the more I realise that no one in the entire world has any real understanding of what the hell it actually means. Therefore, I have decided that it’s perfectly fine to like it just because it sounds great.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.
Who is this woman? What is her significance? What does she represent in the poem? Who cares! Her hair is on fire. What I’m trying to say is that culture, like tax, doesn’t have to be taxing. At the end of the day, what it all means doesn’t matter. Although teachers and professors may try to convince you otherwise, no one really knows, anyway. The message of The Pitmen Painters, at least in my mind, is that even though not everyone is capable of being an artist, everyone is capable of being interested in art. Formal knowledge is just an added bonus, something that gives you another way to see a poem or a play or a painting. You don’t need to be daunted by it – one of the most important things about art is whether or not you like it. In fact, it’s still perfectly possible to dislike something even if you know it’s technically good. Ulysses is a masterpiece, and when I read it I hated it so much I wanted to take a flamethrower to its front cover. You should feel free to read and look at what you want to and conclude from that whatever you like. After all, it’s really all up to you.