Art in the word

The most beautiful script in the world is Arabic, without any doubt. It is a piece of art, and has been woven into works of great beauty for a thousand years and more. Personally I cannot make head nor tail of it, though goodness I have tried. I can at least appreciate the effect as art.

One might consider a script in pure historical terms, in this case a right-to-left Semitic script of the same root as Hebrew, or even derived from it, the forms of which are mirrored in shadow in the lines and names of the Arabic letters, but that is missing the essence on the page. Those swoops and loops (which frankly I have never been able to tell apart) can be a canvas on which a skilled calligrapher may play. Our own script, the Latin alphabet, is as regular as the Roman conception, letter by letter separate, written on the line, lines kept apart – all these things we take for granted. Greek and Hebrew keep regular too. The Arabic calligraphers though make the letters loop around each other, stack, merge, overlap, play together, weave in and out – how they can still be read I do not know, but it is beyond my cultural norms.

I must pause before an objection arrives and say that there is art also in traditional Chinese characters (if not in the modern, simplified forms) and it is used to some effect, but even these are not a patch on what has been done in Arabic.

There is beautiful calligraphy in our own script, and it likewise lifts the soul and imprints the personal into what might otherwise tend to dull regularity. It is never though used as part of artworks; we treat the two as wholly different domains. Where Arabic is different is a necessity forced upon that culture.

The cultural substrate of the Arab world in lapped in Islam (which itself in its local form is shaped by Arabian culture) and the precepts of the religion take strictly what is to us the Second Commandment, not to make any representation of a thing in heaven or on Earth. For us that is a command not to make anything that would be the subject of worship, and my Puritan instincts give me a distinct revulsion at icons and Romanist religious art which tend towards idolatry, but secular representative art is not forbidden (and reached its greatest flourishing in Protestant Europe). In the Muslim world the command has been taken as an absolute bar on representative art. That strict injunction cannot stop art from being made because the making of art is fundamental to humanity – instead it has cause a flowering of decorate art, and in this the swirling script of Arabia is a form.

This art is commonly connected with Islam and the most prominent examples are of Koranic verses and themes, but there are also Christian and even secular calligraphers, as beauty is universal. The combination indeed between the craft of the text and the beauty of a Christian message makes it a very appropriate medium within the culture. The words are the starting point and the pallet; the work of the calligrapher is to draw the viewer in, and there is a mystery in there, in all those interlaced swirls there is meaning even if not immediately apparent, and that in itself draws you in. That is a universal thing.

Another constraint is the limitation of the material – it is not random patterns but known words and phrases. This defies the idea we have that art should challenge the expectations of the view, but if it is a set text, it cannot. That said, the choice of text may challenge the expectations. In a tangle of curves your expectation (if you can read it) your expectation is drawn into it in delighted anticipation – all great art should create a dynamic relationship like this between the piece and the viewer.

Another idea we have is that art does not have a purpose but is art for its own sake: that idea is behind the decline of modern art into ugliness. Art must always have a purpose, though that purpose may be no more than to charm the eye.

These taken together are a lesson – a constraint can become a birth of new art that may exceed that which was forbidden.

See also

Books

Build Back Britain, Boris

I worried about the new slogan, ‘Build Back Better’, looking out over the (so far still) green fields, but in the context, there is more to it than the sick-in-the-stomach vision of concrete and bricks: the whole underpinning of the nation’s political and social structure needs to be rebuilt. This afternoon, up stood Boris with a vision for that task. Let us hope his team are up to the task.

It has been 10 years since Gordon Brown was hurled out of Downing Street, and it has sometimes seemed like a wasted 10 years, but that is not so: David Cameron and George Osborne in their six years worked hard to mend the financial mess left by the Blair and Brown years, and to reverse much of Tony Blair’s egregious imprecations upon the liberty of the subject. They neglected to overturn the leftists’ stranglehold on the levers of state though and left the sprawling edifice largely intact; then on the Brexit issue they brought the party members’ ignominy upon themselves, but they deserve credit where it is due. Theresa May, though a likeable individual, was unequal to the immense divisions riven through the nation and was given little opportunity in her three years. Boris has been in for over a year but still seems only just to have begun.

In that time, Boris has only made one noticeable political mistake: the Lockdown, and it is an overwhelming mistake, that has wrought in a few months more damage then the whole of the Blair-Brown years. He can’t very well pull out of it now out of embarrassment, and so we are stuck in the mire for more months yet, and we descend further, maybe not as deep as Atlee territory, but deep and damaging. Maybe we are coming out. Now we must build back better; build Britain as she should be.

we human beings will not simply content ourselves with a repair job.

Now there is a truth. It is ludicrous to compare the Wuhan flu with the Black Death, but after the latter shock society was transformed, building itself back better, sloughing off the restraints of feudalism and even seeing the first daystar of the Reformation that was to rise over the lands nearly two hundred years later. This is not the Black Death, but it is a shock that has felled the economy and society in such a way that new normality much change to look for resilience, and to climb high enough that new shocks “the next cosmic spanner may be hurtling towards us in the dark” as Boris put it, can be ridden, without the temptation for another devastating lockdown of life and liberty.

Resilience does not fit the modern sentiment. Many are infantilised because we can be: there has been no active war for generations, which is an introduction to real life like no other, and the state has grown so as to smother all discomforts, which is exactly how it should not be. Immediately taking offence at trivia is a symptom of infantilised discourse (though more likely to be a bid for power).

This is not a luxury but basic survival necessity. This is a hard world, and has been since man first left Eden, and those who are ready for it will thrive, but at the moment we are the ones also made to carry the others. The problems of those others are real and heart-rending in their consequence: I have been in case briefings, told repeated stories of individuals who simply cannot cope with anything in life unless all their wants are brought to their plate by others, and who drift into crime and madness as an unavoidable consequence. Throwing money at the issue does not help if there is no training to resilience and independence, and any build-back must assume the necessity for individual resilience, or no other measure will work, or at least not reach those at the bottom of society.

What we heard from Boris Johnson today were ideas and inspiring ones. Behind it I could hear unspoken numbers, cash to be taxed on my children and their eventual children; or could it be done another way? Most government spending is on health and the welfare state (though goodness knows what the health spending goes on, because doctors have been refusing to see patients for months) and it may be that efficiencies can be made in this colossus of a budget, keeping effective spending up while reducing the amount actually consumed in the system. Outside that sector, there are many efficiencies that could be made in everyday government without affecting what it actually does, and much of what it does do it need not. That was a theme of David Cameron’s early years, but not one which really took off as it should have. At that time of course Dominic Cummings was not deployed to his full capacity.

The implied road-building programme then struck a theme I have often worried about. Roads are needed outside the South-East, although at the same time I believe would be better to let some roads rot for a few years as there is no money left to mend them; as long as they are not the roads I race down. The subject hovering over the project was the North. This is important for a proper Build Back Better: the Northern towns are not actually ignored by the government, but they can appear neglected – a drive through the leafy villages of the Home Counties, or up the millionaire’s row that is the Thames will look a world apart from a drive through the ex-industrial towns north of the Trent. The missing element to prosperity is not government but commerce. There is no inherent reason why Worksop should not shine like Guildford, but that economic buzz of the one stutters in the other. The thing is that this is not a zero-sum game between towns: if Nottinghamshire takes wing, that does not beggar Surrey. The nation is the poorer for having wealth-creation in too small a sphere, and if part of the fault is poor infrastructure, then putting some in may bring in the medium term a tax-take to repay it – maybe. On the other hand, that could be the wrong way round – the broad roads came to the Home Counties because they prosper, not to make them so.

(It feels like the Matthew Effect: For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.)

I am suspicious of government interference, and the spending of my money on projects that would be better done by those who know what they are doing, which is to say commercial entrepreneurs. That said, the south is awash with gold at the moment and can be left to fester for a bit while the North is under the spotlight, to encourage the private investment which could be its due. What the North needs more than grands projets though is less government; for the state, often local government, to get out of the way and let enterprising men and women do their magic (and not to blunder in with well-meaning subsidies to unfair competition).

If the left-behind areas can have the yoke taken off so that they thrive, that is more prosperity to the nation as a whole. That would really be building back better.

See also

Books

I’ve got a little list: do you?

Writing the unspoken voice of the audience, Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote in frustration at the politicians of their day, who were exactly like those of our day. When Ko-Ko produces his ‘Little List’ it satirised the politician having a malicious crack-down, but it is a list of those the audience-member would persecute were they in charge, which would be sobering if it were not so funny, and liberating to say.

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

Every performer playing Ko-Ko changes the list to include his own pet gripes or the politics of the day, with nods and winks to the audience, which is exactly what G&S expected. Gilbert’s original stil holds up though:

There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —

Yes – they get the writers’ frustration in first. Apparently some people still bother celebs in that way.

And all third persons who on spoiling tête-à-têtes insist —
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

Come now: in any of those endless tedious receptions the lone visitor is sent out into a room knowing no one and has to stand around like a lemon, with a compulsory glass in his hand, until he can contrive to interrupt some else’s conversation on the limpest of excuses. (A great blessing of lockdown has been avoiding those functions.) Have some sympathy, gentlemen

There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race
And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!

Quite right too. Banjos are mercifully rare today but ukuleles are everywhere, encouraged even in some outwardly respectable schools. At least the ukulele is to be preferred to a banjo, as it burns better.

Then comes the piano accordion. I read that after the 1745 Rebellion, a youth was convicted of bearing arms against the King when he had but carried a bagpipe. Well, if a bagpipe is an offensive weapon (which few dispute), how much more the piano-accordion! If they were not punished hitherto, it is only because even the rough Highlanders would not have stooped to bearing such an instrument.

Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;

Isn’t that just the curse of our times? Many an outwardly educated man will regale you unbidden about how our nation has fallen into decadency unlike some other age he may name, or to assure you that another country of his acquaintance is far superior in every turn of life, be it France, China or Darkest Peru, based on his long observations over a weekend break or a book he once read. I can barely imagine the Edwardians, for example, tolerating such impudence – that was a far more confident age where patriotism was expected of all and a natural thing, unlike these degraded generations, and even today you would not find this self-hating attitude in patriotic America, or France – the French indeed for all their bizarre philosophy are solidly patriotic, which is as we should be.

And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy
And who “doesn’t think she dances, but would rather like to try”;
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist —
I don’t think she’d be missed — I’m sure she’d not he missed!

Now wait; that “dresses like a guy” means “like a Guy Fawkes effigy”, not, well, you know. Country ladies in my experience are more elegant, though you take your context into account. Long, scarlet silk dresses, heels and jewellery do work in a London restaurant (or one of those tedious receptions) but are ridiculous the moment she is out of that room. Such apparel is not for real life hauling soggy dogs out of the back of a Volvo or being hauled by them through bushes. No; a country lass beats them all, and if she wants to write a book, good for her, as long as I’m not expected to read it.

And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife
The Judicial humourist — I’ve got him on the list!

I sympathise with the judges. All day long, five days a week, and into the evenings, they are heads-down over papers that delve deep into the worst of profundities of humanity, or in the court itself, which is a piece of theatre (except that on a theatrical performance hang the livelihoods of the actors and all those who work at the theatre, while in a court hangs the livelihood only of the one man in the dock). The sordid underbelly of human life exposed, the future of the defendant in the balance, the reputation of order and justice themselves at risk; but it has to be played according to rules, with utter politeness and respect on all sides, strained sometimes, but it is not personal. It is an inherently ludicrous situation, so surely a judge cannot help but show it sometimes. He has to wade through the relentless awfulness of criminality, so a sense of humour is vital. On the other hand, if you are the defendant in the dock you expect your future to decided in a sombre, precise manner, not by what might as well be stand-up night at the Duke of York.

And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind

And such apologies for statesmen we have today. What is it about apologising for everything? That is theatre in itself. I will at some point get round to writing about political apologies, but it would go on for longer than I wish to spend on a line of G&S. Suffice to say that a politician who apologises or kneels (or worse) makes himself despicable. I could name several but –

The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list
For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

See also