A colleague of mine recently went to see an exhibition at the Tate Britain.  He really enjoyed himself because it was full of vibrant, joyful paintings.  But he noticed that a lot of the people there looked pretty glum.  When I asked him why he thought that was he said, ‘Because they were looking at art’.

What I think he meant was that we sometimes take art (or music or literature or theatre) a bit too seriously.  I get the impression this tendency may not be as bad as it was in the past.  Not that long ago, people seemed to approach art exhibitions and concerts as the gravest of enterprises.  You’d see them staring at a Toulouse Lautrec like it was a quadratic equation.  They’d spend weeks in advance researching Tannhäuser, arrive wearing clothes appropriate for an audience with Edward VII and then concentrate grimly as if they were watching a public hanging.  It was only when the opera was over that some of them would scream and hurl objects from their boxes.

So what’s going on?  Well, in those days, a sombre appreciation of culture was a sign of erudition, status or belonging to the in-crowd.  It could easily blur into pretentiousness.  But some of it still remains today.

A substitute for religion?

Religion might be involved in this too.  The artist David Jones considered that the nature of human beings ‘demands the sacramental’.  In other words we have a deep yearning for everyday things to serve as channels into a spiritual realm.  If people don’t have the real thing, they’ll find replacements.  Everybody knows that music, for instance, can bring people to feel they’re touching something beyond themselves.  The decline of religious observance in the West leaves a vacuum to be filled.  That may be connected to the gravity you see on people’s faces

The superego

But, as I’ve said, the notion of art as a SERIOUS BUSINESS, for all its dilution, still lives on.  That’s a message that gets conveyed through the superego.  The superego is the part of our minds that contains the do’s and don’ts of society.  It tells you not to blow your nose on the tablecloth, not to send Valentine’s cards to your mother and not to put aviation fuel in your boss’s coffee.  It also tells you that society considers art to be an earnest phenomenon, so watch it.

Children, confidence and crime

The reason why my colleague had fun at the exhibition was that he didn’t care what society said, he was just being himself.  He was confident enough to do that.  Confident enough to know which paintings he liked, which paintings he was less keen on and for that to be good enough.

In the best sense, there’s a childlike quality there.  Children are often unselfconscious, natural and spontaneous.  If we can hang on to a bit of that in adulthood it’s no bad thing.

A friend came a cropper over this.  Somebody she found intimidating asked if she’d read Schopenhauer’s Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.  Afraid to look ignorant by saying ‘no’ and too anxious to say, ‘Who the hell do you think has?’, she lied and then predictably had an experience akin to her teeth being pulled out when she was asked which of the arguments seemed to her the strongest.

It’s not a criminal offence not to like philosophy.  Perhaps it’s closer to one not to be ourselves.