Squandering the Splendid Years

Irish News Column
Irish News January 2001

Last month I was reviewing, on Radio Ulster, an exhibition of illustrations for children’s books. Some of these were filled with amazing detail, many were expertly drawn, others were expressively painted and a few owed too much, perhaps, to the television cartoon; but I wondered if any contained that certain quality which only children see. I thought about Mr. Hegarty.
In 1946 Pearse Hegarty taught First and Second Class in the Star of the Sea Public Elementary School, Hallidays Road. I was fortunate to be one of his pupils. These illustrations reminded me of the powerful enchantment he created for us by his constant use of art to energize our learning. When he produced his large folio of brilliant pictures the class rubbed their hands in glee, knowing, that they were soon to be charmed into colourful places beyond the confines of the New Lodge Road.
I don’t remember what he said about these images. He would place one on the easel and somehow we were invited into it; A picture of children in a sun-dappled, woodland picking bluebells and primroses. Illustrations for children, as for adults, have a visual depth beyond the purely perspectival. These painted scenes offered us a visual world in which we could travel. We were in those woods; we wandered behind the trees, we smelt the flowers and heard the birds sing, and in that dark, wood-panelled classroom the sunlight rattled on the easel. Those years with Mr. Hegarty were a delightful rush of sensations; then they came to an end. We moved into a higher class, and the less colourful world of education took over. But another window had been opened, and another way of seeing had been given to some of us.
Why am I writing about this? Well, what better time for nostalgia and prognostication than the first month, of the first year, of a new millennium.
Exceptional teachers may be rare, but they still exist. Thanks to them there are still children in primary schools experiencing the enchantment of the visual world and developing sensitivities which will colour the way they see. But where, and how, will these sensitivities be nourished in higher education? The obvious answer should be; “the Art school,”. But experience tells us this is not so. Whichever attributes art schools are attempting to encourage, sensitivity doesn’t seem to be one of them. Today, everybody is an artist and everything is art. Professional success only depends on the PR Man; that art spiv, who foists artistic inadequates on an uncritical art world.
For him art products need only to be novel, silly or simply offensive to be successful. Skill and sensitivity aren’t required. This is a great bonus for the art spiv because “non-skill” is everywhere. We are all skill-less in as many areas as we can envisage. This means the art spiv can have an endless supply of idiocies to market every year.
Art critic, Waldemar Januszcak writing in the Sunday Times, says he is “gloomy” because “ the days of shocking are over,”. If we can’t be shocked by Art, we must be in artistic “doldrums”. According to Januszcak, Art’s most important attribute is to shock. Is it any wonder that absurdity prevails? The IRA, UDA, and UVF, have been shocking us for decades; are they now part of our artistic heritage? Nothing is too silly for the visual art world. In no other area of human expertise is there such a ludicrous rejection of skill, judgement and common sense.
Imagine a group of people who call themselves a soccer team; They don’t kick a ball, and they don’t play the game soccer. Instead they stay in their homes reading newspapers or watching television. When we tell them that they are not footballers, they say that we don’t understand the true nature of football. A game isn’t required to make it football. In fact people kicking a ball is passé; it no longer reflects developments at the cutting edge of soccer. Today everything is soccer and everybody is a footballer whether one plays the game or not.
Of course it couldn’t happen. If it did they wouldn’t be footballers, but they could be conceptual artists. Nothing, we now realize, is too silly in the visual art world. In a recent TV documentary Damian Hirst spoke about his “Spin paintings”. These were made by placing a board on a spinning base. Anyone who happened to be in his studio threw tins of paint on to the spinning board.
“ I let other people make them....I’ll sign them,...they are bright and they are zany but there’s fuck all there at the end of the day”
That spiritually, enhancing world of skill and sensitivity nurtured by our dedicated teachers;- have we squandered it, do you think?

Joseph Mc Williams January 2001©