A strange coincidence – yesterday I wrote about having dreamed of my grandfather on the day he died, and feeling that it was I who had now become the ghost, and then yesterday evening, on the News, video of this unexpected art project taking place in various UK cities as a tribute to the men who died on the Somme. I thought it was amazing, and I’m not often amazed. How better to bring the sadness and the great losses of war home to people.
The whole concept of what is and is not “art” seems to be changing – or at least, it has changed since I was a gel. I grew up in a working-class household and at no time did it occur to any of us that art was for working-class people too. “Art” was something posh people went to galleries to stare at. Art was square pictures in square frames.
Posh art was in ornate, gilded frames and was mostly about pink and cream naked ladies, usually rather large, with a laughable wisps of drapery here and there. Either that or it was statues with no arms, or Romans on plinths with sightless eyes and no bodies. Or it was Picasso, and who could understand him? I mean, people just didn’t have both eyes on the same side of their face, did they? Even posh people.
Amateur art lived in cheaper, less twiddly frames and was mostly really bad. It was the sort of thing you saw strapped to the railings at the seaside – dreadful watercolours of nothing in particular – portraits of women with thighs like sacks of potatoes, that might have been wearing jodhpurs but probably weren’t; odd little oil-paint boats pinned to static oil-paint seas with fluffy little oil-paint clouds creeping over them.
Later I married an artist, but the gradual expansion in my taste for art happened in spite of rather than because of him, since he was only really interested in his own paintings, which were mostly of steam engines and aeroplanes. Everything else came under the heading of Interesting (yawn!). Someone gave me a very expensive book – or maybe I bought it for myself: Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Over half of its pages were colour plates, as I remember, and it covered the whole span of art, from cave drawings and native art to the present day, and not just paintings but drawings, architecture and sculptures. I discovered a taste for the medieval – or perhaps a bit later than that – for Dürer and Bosch. I discovered an unfashionable liking for the Pre-Raphaelites and all those elongated women with flowing titian hair. I discovered an even greater liking for drawings than paintings. I met Turner, Van Gough and Vermeer. I stumbled over still lives with skulls, rotting fruit and mysterious symbolism. I found that somebody had painted a shattering Scream on a bridge, and someone else had captured the elegant boredom of a French barmaid.
A bar at the Folies Bergère: Manet
And now – now it seems that art and all the other arts are coming together. Visiting Leeds Castle I noticed a wickerwork dragon growing out of the ground by a pond, its coils to all appearances buried in mud and daffodils. I spot herds of flat cows on roundabouts; trees wearing knitted mufflers; gardens mysteriously appearing on scraps of waste ground; stencilled cartoons on walls that are instantly so valuable the wall itself gets stolen; ceramic poppies spilling from the Tower of London and First World War soldiers standing in the streets singing We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. I stumble across poems mixed with music; songs that are really poems in disguise; poems that are partly drawings; cartoons that are really art; flash-crowds of people, summoned by social media, suddenly dancing some cool little dance in the street; staid buildings and monuments transformed by light-shows, or changing colour to mourn the victims of terrorism.
It seems to me art’s now more interesting and more democratic. It occurs to me that one day all the different boxes creativity now squeezes itself into will dissolve. Labels like art, architecture, music, poetry, novelising, dance, lighting, fashion, craft, acting – and who knows what other forms of creativity yet to be invented – might blend into one great synaesthesia of the imagination.
Walking Ghosts at Waterloo: Alastair Steward/ITV News; Soldiers among commuters: PA