A wavy cross at Ely Cathedral

I saw a very odd artwork at Ely Cathedral yesterday. It was a huge, metal cross, about thirty feet high, which hung on the wall near the West Door. The upright beam of the cross wasn’t straight, but wavy. A little board beneath explained that the curved line represented the emotional struggles of the way of faith. The viewer was, I think, supposed to imagine a pilgrim slowly shaping the wavy line as he progressed through various emotional states. In other words, this was expressive art: the wavy shape was supposed to be the sort of thing one might make as part of having an emotion, rather than reflecting on it. It was expressive in the sense in which a scream is expressive of fear.

       On problem occurred to me. Consciously produced art can never be a pure expression of emotion, because reflection upon one’s emotions compromises those very emotions: just as tears that a child deliberately uses to convey emotion are less sincere than spontaneous ones. Realising this, I tried to give the Ely artwork its due: I tried to image its maker reflecting upon the emotions of pilgrimage, and to imagine the emotions that he might have thought a pilgrim might have expressed at the time of having them by fashioning a wavy line. But I didn’t feel that I had gained anything from the exercise: no real understanding of the artist’s feelings, or pilgrims’; no better understanding of my own; no sense that he had clearly captured some moment of human experience that the world could then reflect on at leisure.

       In contrast, I feel all of these things when I look at a pre-modernist masterpiece: at art that aims to represent—to make something present again—rather than to express. Take Giotto’s Lamenti. We can tell that the women are grieving not because Giotto waved his paintbrush around in a sad way—that would not have worked—but because he had the skill to paint faces that look sad. He had, in other words, a certain emotional detachment or control, of a kind that a purely expressive (or pseudo-expressive) artist consciously rejects. For sure, his was not a full detachment; but it was enough for him to package up, in a disciplined form, the emotions he wanted to represent. His act of painting was analogous to the act of expressing one’s emotions in language. For however much one might be enthralled with emotion as one is describing it with words, the mere act of putting one’s feelings into the disciplined structure of language gives one a certain rational mastery over them. After all, to characterize a feeling, one’s brain has to be doing something more than merely feeling it. Such characterization moves one’s emotions out of the sphere of the dark, irrational and inscrutable, and into the sphere of the scrutible, the intelligible. It is a fundamentally human act; and so is non-expressive painting.

       What is not so human is the mere bawling out of shrieks and cries; of tears and rage and melodramatic gestures. But it is such pure expression that modern art both indulges and encourages; it promotes infantilism in the most literal sense—and the superstitious servility that goes with it.

       I think that the artist of Ely was sincere; I think he was simply trying to be part of current artistic discourse. But I would enjoin him to try something more human, in the Christian sense of the word. 

The cult of ‘Games’

This Commonwealth games, the BBC is once again encouraging us to worship our sporting ‘heroes’, with its presenters setting an uncomfortable (and notably inegalitarian) tone of deference. No doubt, there will be M.B.E.’s aplenty for the very best, in addition to all the T.V. adulation. The state’s message is clear: our most physically impressive citizens are to be our new national heroes.

       But isn’t this all rather pagan? Today’s games stem from those developed by the Ancient Greeks, who thought that the physically impressive were closer to the Gods than the rest of us—and who therefore wanted to sift out, and reverence, the most impressive men of all. In modern times, it was their Greek descendants—poor, humiliated, long oppressed—who first seriously reprised these ancient celebrations of raw power. (Having said that: one might also mention Revolutionary France’s short-lived Olympiade de la République, which even included a rather pagan peace-and-fertility pageant). Carried away with a rush of Byronic enthusiasm, the Greeks modelled their new games on the most prestigious ones of antiquity—those held at Olympia.

       Famously, Nazi Germany was perhaps the first powerful modern nation to make its sporting performance a matter of national prestige; later, the Soviets were crass enough to toss human material on to the Olympic altar-pyre, in an effort to make the rest of the world forget that most of its people were starving.

       Have you noticed a pattern here? Since Christ, it has always been the insecure nations, the nations with a point to prove, that have hung their hats on their Olympic performances. After all, what does it really matter, morally speaking, if one country’s men can throw further than others’, or one country’s women swim faster? What does it really tell us about what a nation can achieve, or whether it is in strong health? Nations only fixate on ‘Games’ when they have nothing else to be proud of.

       Or, perhaps more accurately, nothing that they want to be proud of. For it was undoubtedly a contempt for Britain’s past that led the Labour Government to bid for London 2012, the games at which Britain’s own sporting hero-cult really began. Labour ministers saw in it the chance of a year-zero moment: the chance to purge the nation of its regressive, redundant ‘Two World Wars and One Word Cup mentality’—for such was the mindset that they would always snobbishly impute to ordinary British patriots—and to exchange it for a new, enlightened world-view. In other words: for a ‘One World Cup’ sort of attitude. One might have thought that we, whose country has enriched the world, abolished slavery, spread the rule of law and saved Europe from several tyrannies, would have no reason to feel threatened if, say, the Kenyans could run faster than us. Not according to the Labour and Coalition Governments: suddenly, it really mattered if we weren’t putting on a good show.

       And that’s all it’s really about, isn’t it, a show? Such superficiality drains a nation morally; but it also has more immediate effects. In this case, the billions squandered on ‘elite’ sport mean that we have little to spare for things like playing field provision in state schools. (In what other sphere, by the way, would we still use the term ‘elite’ without circumspection? Especially when the ‘eliteness’ concerned can get one a knighthood?) This, ironically, gives a specious vindication to the claim that the ‘elite sports’ budget, and the televised performances of the athletes inspired by it, inspire children to become sporty: for it’s true that, nowadays, inner city comprehensive pupils are unlikely to first see a playing field, if not on a screen. But the problem with this logic—as everyone who isn’t a civil servant in the Department of Culture Media, and Sport knows—is that children will quite happily play games if they simply have some safe green space, and a ball. ‘But what’s that, Christopher Robin? You say you haven’t got a ball, or a field? Oh dear: regrettably, you see, some big men took all the money!’.

       This whole cult of Games, then, is a post-Christian neo-pagan reversion to a vicious, divisive, inherently socially unjust kind of elitism. Can we please stop it?