A Christmas Carol

This weekend, whilst people who were or could have been schoolmates of mine are stuck in various parts of an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, slaughtering nutcases, and whilst the government was considering charging the poor a 27% interest on loans (ostensibly to save only the most needy from loan sharks) I was swanning around various London galleries with a companion.

The world is always with us, late and soon, but I am glad that I completed my seasonal triptych of the Byzantine exhibition, the Cold War modern, and the exhibition of late Rothko at the Tate. I even got an unexpected bonus, which was a hugely enjoyable side-swerve to Cildo Meireles' conceptual art show. There, I either mucked about a lot or critically engaged with the art in an interactive fashion, depending, I suppose, upon your point of view.

There are probably pretentious things that I could say about my weekend, and no doubt once I've ploughed through a few more chapters of Simon Schama's populist but readable Power of Art, I could carry on with my slightly witless homage to Robert Hughes.

However, I've never really been one to keep my mouth shut, except when intimidating with silence. I remember once being in Headington Hall, in Oxford, in a room full of barristers and student lawyers. Someone asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say; I thought that the environmental health inspectors were going to come and inspect the noise from the clearing of throats.

So what was it that I saw in this orgy of art?

I smiled more than once. Rothko, like Palmerston and Churchill, whom I also admire, played a long game. He was unlucky and saw many streak past him at the start of his career, and then, like the archetypal Rocky, he got his break and all those coping mechanisms became strengths. Through a grasp of tragedy which was almost comical he found success--isn't that absurd? For Mark Rothko, everything that seemed to fail wasn't actually a failure; every pressurised event just something to take in his stride. Life taught him humility. Rothko appeals to the somewhat battered arriviste in me, and to that part which just admires people for being honest and maintaining goodwill, even if by saying nothing. Apparently he went from chochum to taciturn in later life.

I felt a little bit of the Christmas carol spirit too, reader. Byzantium was a state of Christmas past, suffused in faith; the cold war a clash of world-spanning, judeao-Christian modernities underpinned by the substructure of orthodox and catholic yearning; and Rothko, a priest of a faithless world raging at money's lack of understanding and moving inexorably to his suicide. I wonder if that moment might come to this country soon.

When I was mucking about in the talc room--a whole room full of Talc to walk around in barefoot, with a mask on--or the fontes collection of clocks and rulers arranged in a double helix, which one could crash through like a child--I think that I was in part depressurising from seeing art and machinery that had somehow trapped its authors forever. It was all clearly designed to work with purpose by people of feeling. Even the cold war show was sensuous, though whether because of the plastics, colours and revealed piping and engineering, or something else I am not sure.

My Korean companion, who seems to be adding every time I meet her to my Goldfinger look--was oblivious. She did, however, go into ecstasies at the pictures of Richard Nixon at the kitchen debates, declaring him 'the father of her country' and a great man, as much as she was concerned to repeat my mother's observation that I could easily look like Khruschev if I didn't get to the gym. I think he became the face of Eisenhower's gifts of flour in the aftermath of the Korean war.

Ah, deep observations indeed. Somewhere in the exhibitions, what the artists were trying to do with perception changed too. In Byzantium, they were straining towards a mystical view of what they genuinely believed to be objective reality, it seemed to me, in defiance of the catholics, muslims and others who were barely mentioned in the show. In the cold war, I was struck by the number of devices, pictures, and clothes that sought to change experience and to reform feeling, from the Vienna bubble to reality-ordering goggles.

By the time I got to Rothko, perhaps I was ready to see that Rothko's plan of infusing his paintings with his own sensibility to make people abandon what they thought was objective and embrace his perception, disguised as their own, was prophetic in the west. So many people allow themselves to be manipulated whilst decrying their freedom. This whole weekend has been about others trying to communicate, and to change the world behind my eyes, within the bounds of human capacity. What a strange thing to happen.

Life is a very funny proposition after all, isn't it? Now, as the crisis is wrapping itself around the throats of so many families, I'm off home to hide in art, and books, and wine, and to think about Christmas. I wish readers the best of the season, will blog occasionally, and hope that people who can, find the time for a mass and their families. We are all going to need our reason and prayers in the new year.

Here's Flanagan and Allen singing Always on the Outside Looking In... I was eating salt beef and tokoyaki near Bud Flanagan's old house at the weekend too. Ah, London.


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