Monday, August 12, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Within the last month, my wife and I drove down to Wellington from Auckland, and back again a few days later. We were sitting in a Wellington picture theatre when there was the big shake (6.5 on the Richter scale) on Sunday 21 July. Our seats juddered and rocked for about 15 seconds as if they were on springs. Little niggling aftershocks recurred throughout the rest of our viewing of an indifferent film.

This fearsome force of nature is not the focus of my tale, however, but rather something that we saw en route between the Largest City and the Capital City.

Driving south down the Desert Road, which we have both crossed many times in our lives, we for the first time saw snow not only on the three mountains Tongariro, Ngaruahoe and Ruapehu, but extending all the way across the Rangipo Desert. A sheer blanket of white reached from Ruapehu down to the road we were driving on, and across to the east as far as the hills. I am sorry if the words are hackneyed, but it was beautiful, awesome, breath-taking.

We could not stop, because frequent signs told us we were not allowed to. The road was clear and ice-free. But the practical people who keep the road open in bad weather do not like vehicles to halt and linger when there is snow around. Presumably they have images of cars and trucks trapped in snowdrifts, unable to start again and having to be hauled out by tow-trucks based in Turangi or Waiouru. The best we could do was to point a phone-camera through the car window as we passed and take as many snaps as possible.

Three days later, when we drove back north across the same road, the snow had already melted and retreated back to the mountains, where it shone from the lower slopes to the peaks. The Rangipo Desert was back to its usual scrubby, muddy, dirty, sandy, brown and black. Normality was restored.

Now where is this anecdote going?

I have recently read for review a rather indifferent book. It purports to survey all the formative “myths” of New Zealand, which still influence the way people see the country. Among other things, the author (who in this particular is not being very original) solemnly lectures us on the concept of the Sublime. We are told that the very idea of the Sublime was essentially a European idea, and an attempt to read European concepts of beauty and divinity into landscape. Indeed the notion of “landscape” itself was and is an artificial construct. On this basis the (derivative) author then proceeds to de-construct the work of 19th century landscape painters of New Zealand. The underlying message is one belittling their works as somehow not being “true” to nature, or at least not “true” to what we, in our more advanced early-21st century state of civilization, can perceive.

I repeat, I have heard these and similar ideas frequently from other sources. Indeed they are now almost the standard approach when historians and art historians discuss landscape. [Look up Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory on the index to this blog, for related ideas.]

Now I hope I am sophisticated enough to agree that all works of art are somehow the products of a specific culture, with norms that are conditioned by that culture. I am aware that aestheticians once talked about “the Sublime” in ways that they no longer do. I recognize that there are conventions in 19th century landscape painting that are no longer our conventions. But even admitting all this, I find the attempt to banish Sublimity from human experience, and claim that it was merely a past phase of one human civilization, to be reductionist and trite.

I am not a nineteenth century landscape painter. But when looking at the sheer white sheet that covered the Rangipo, what else could I call it but Sublime?

A related idea occurs to me. Some years ago there was held in Auckland an art exhibition of European paintings illustrating “Orientalism” – that is, the tendency of European and Western artists and writers to fantasise about countries south-east of Europe, and to see them in terms of picturesque and unrepresentative exoticism. So the exhibition was filled with European images of glamourised harems and slave markets, and desert-roving Arabs posed dramatically on the horizon, and so forth.

I accepted the exhibition’s organizing principle that these represented European preconceptions as much as they represented any objective reality.

And yet I paused long before one canvas – a painting of Arabs on horseback crossing a stream – and asked whether this could really be dismissed as patronising European romanticism. My problem was that the painted image looked to me very like what a camera would have caught in recording the same scene.

I am not contradicting myself here. I fully understand that the camera can lie. Only last week (in the “Something Thoughtful” posting “Some Corner of a Foreign Field”) I commented on somebody who took unrepresentative photographs for reality.

But I do assert that we can be too precious in the way we interpret images from the past, or rule out the possibility of a common human experience. Yes, art is expressed in culturally specific ways. But that does not mean that somehow feeling the awe of a natural scene can be shuffled aside as a culturally specific phenomenon. A Zulu, Inuit, ancient Greek or Korean looking at the snow-clad Rangipo might have found a different word for it. But their vocalisation – whatever it was – would still have said that this was Sublime.

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