When it comes to paintings, I want to feel at one with their colours and forms, be seduced into stopping and staring and be moved emotionally. And in all this it is the picture itself that is dominant. When, how, and by whom it was painted is of secondary importance, as indeed is its price. To put it simply, my judgement is made essentially on face value.
At an art exhibition last week I fell for one particular work – ‘Untitled’ by a painter named Samantha.
The fact that Samantha is an American-based Western Lowland gorilla is interesting but has no bearing on the picture’s intrinsic appeal. Nor is it important whether the painter saw her picture as a work of art. No doubt her view on art would fascinate animal psychologists, but that is another issue. As when viewing paintings by humans, ultimately it is I, and not the painter, who decide on the work’s appeal. And for me this is based simply on what appears in front of me.
The place of face value, albeit in a different guise, surfaced again a few days later. I was asked if I had seen The Iron Lady. I replied that I couldn’t bear the idea as I had found Margaret Thatcher’s politics far too offensive. With regard to politics, my friend and I have much the same views, but this does not extend to our approache towards the cinema. He had seen the film as soon as it was released. As a Meryl Streep devotee he was desperate to see how well she performed in the lead role. This position is hardly unique, indeed the large majority of filmgoers are probably attracted at least in part by the stars. But for me they are only a small element. My interest is in the plot, the script and the visual design. As I see it, actors themselves should be subsumed into the parts they play. Knowing that a character is actually Kirstin Scott Thomas or George Clooney, simply detracts from the film. There are some exceptions, as when the film is made expressly as a vehicle for someone’s talents (Fred Astaire’s dancing, Elvis Presley’s singing) but that is a rather different matter.
It is, I believe, fair to blame an insider for my stance. I refer to my mother, an actor of some repute, who believed strongly that real actors leave their own persona at the stage door (or make-up room), and that during a performance they themselves should be invisible, should dissolve into the part. She argued that an audience would prefer to see an image free from such clutter.
And the idea of valuing something for its face value, of removing the messenger, can extend to matters intellectual. During my career as an academic doctor/researcher, I was continuously bombarded by facts and ideas and lots of these needed to be checked. Some came from colleagues or specialists of repute, others from people who were relatively unknown, possibly patients or students who were making simple observations or expressing opinions. I soon discovered that while specialists were generally right, on occasions they made mistakes or had ideas that were plain wrong. Conversely, ‘unknowns’ could say or write things that were compelling even ingenious and worthy of serious consideration. So, for instance, the resolution of one question from a student took me a research project and three years to resolve, while to sort out an incorrect statement from my own professor and mentor took me five.
Faced with such intellectual challenges, what was to be done? My solution was to take each fact or observation at face value and initially believe it. Then, the job was to judge its validity against information derived from a mixture of reading, research, and experience. In all this it was important not to influenced by friendships, loyalties, or bullying. Rather, each point needed to be based on a careful and impartial assessment of the issues at hand. As might be imagined, making independent judgements in this way can lead to unpopularity, and in my case sometimes being labelled as rude or unsociable. But this was my job, and I rather suspect that overall my judgements will have given rise to pleasure and disappointment in equal measure.
It was not until I was around thirty that I felt comfortable making such judgements, a process that required me to brush aside extraneous pressures and to feel secure in myself. In this process, disregarding the provenance of a painting, or a performance, or an assertion offered a good start, as did beginning by treating every topic at its face value. And this is how I have continued.
Image: Rob Eagle/UCL