We know, in theory, all about valuing other people: respecting them as unique individuals, listening to their voice, accepting humanity in its majestic diversity… The lesson has been made for us in politics. Since the inception of Athenian democracy, and or at least since the French and American revolutions, we have heard much about the near-sacred rights of every citizen, about our equal standing before authority and about our universal claim to be heard and respected. Christianity has made a comparable point in the spiritual sphere: everyone has a precious soul, everyone deserves love and honour, we are all as unique and as precious as somebody’s own child.
Yet whatever the theory, this is not quite how we live in practice. We largely dwell in suspicion of one another. We are quick to fill with anger and mistrust. We are ready to imagine the darkest things about strangers. Rarely do we surrender to any kind of mood of benevolence or tenderness towards our fellow humans.
But there might be a way more regularly to do this via a physical exercise as peculiar sounding as it may be consoling: with their full consent, by taking a minute or two to study – really study – someone else’s hand, holding it in ours and observing it with a deeply unusual sense of curiosity and imagination.
Palm readers have long known something that most of us overlook: that hands are very telling. Unfortunately, they have taken this insight into a needlessly fantastical direction, suggesting that hands can tell us the one thing that no one is ever able to know: what will happen in the future. But outside of this fantasmagoria, their focus has surely been correct. Hands are – far more than other parts of the body – zones of supreme eloquence. We might go so far as to say that if what we can colloquially call ‘the soul’ – that confluence of deep identity, vulnerability and singularity dwells anywhere, then it must be in the hands. To look closely over someone’s hands, to open the palm, observe the fingers, follow the veins and examine the creases and folds, is to gain a powerful sense of the living newness and exoticism of their life. It is hard not to feel sympathy and even, in the most innocent but also sincere sense, not to be overcome by love.
The path from a neglect of hands to their more appropriate appreciation can be tracked in the history of art. For most of the medieval period, artists knew – of course – that humans had hands, otherwise they’d have trouble holding anything up (for example, their child), but they chose to see them in the most schematic and indistinct of ways. For the artist sculpting the mother of god out of walnut wood in Auvergne some time around 1200, hands were just hands in general, not someone’s hands in particular.
Hands in general, not someone’s hands. Detail of Virgin and Child in Majesty, 1175-1200
Even the Italian painter Giotto, a genius at rendering emotion, when he came to give his characters hands on the walls of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua around 1300, evidently wasn’t very interested in the details: four sausage fingers and a thumb seemed to be very much enough.
Giotto, Detail, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, c.1305
At least in Europe, it is only as we enter the mid to late Renaissance that artists began to get appropriately interested – for the first time – in some of the many things that hands have to tell us.
In one of the central works of the history of art, hands at last have a primordial place. The momentous moment of near contact between the human and the divine is articulated not via the mind or the eyes, but the fingers. It’s not words or a smile or an embrace: all the intensity of the connection between man and god is focused on the precise position and character of two hands: on the left (human side) more drawn in and more languid; and on the right godly side more open, assertive and commanding. (Michelangelo was, retrospectively, also rather lucky that in the decades after he finished his labours, the plaster between the hands of the two central figures started to crack, creating a sense of ever widening and poignant division in the relationship between the heavenly and the human.)
The idea of studying hands closely reached perhaps its highest point of development in the 19th century. Here, a great artist like Edgar Degas might simply paint a pair of otherwise disembodied hands and leave us to fill in the entirety of the complex individual they belonged to – confident (not wrongly) that, from these hints, we would have enough to imagine a whole life story.
Edgar Degas, Study of Hands 1860
Study a hand, any hand, carefully enough, the artists appeared to be telling us, and you can know the crucial elements of what matters in an individual.
We might, in their wake, try a similar exercise with an old or, more daringly, a new friend. Once this hand was tiny; it struggled to grasp a raisin. They maybe sucked their thumb; their fingers would have pulled up zips and undone buttons. Their hand has been employed in their most intimate activities. It’s been clenched in anger; it’s wiped away tears; the fingernails have dug into the palm at moments of anxiety (of which there must have been many); it’s signed documents; made graphically rude gestures; it’s clutched a wall in terror; it’s been held by a parent before crossing a road. And one day an undertaker will fold it carefully across this person’s chest.
Through the study of a hand, we feel at an emotional level what might otherwise have remained a mere intellectual notion: that another person is just as complex, strange and multifaceted as we are; that they, like us, are the centres of their own bewilderingly rich and precious perceptions – and are every bit as worthy of consideration and sympathy. Once we look back up at their eyes after time with their hand, they perhaps won’t ever quite be the same person again – in the best of ways.
We speak so much of universal brother and sister-hood. But it isn’t until we have spent some moments immersed in the stories whispered by another’s hands that we stand to be able to turn an abstract aspiration into something properly useful and appropriately humanising.
It sounds paradoxical: that we can be heartbroken even though a lover is still with us. And yet, it’s not so strange, because the source of heartbreak is not precisely the physical departure of a lover – but rather the recognition that a partner doesn’t really love us any more, something which we may come to realise even without anyone having taken steps to pack their bags.
In other words, the physical presence of a lover isn’t any sort of guarantee against heartbreak. We might be sharing a bed and the utility bills with a partner – but the love there once was between us may have gone forever. Neither of us is leaving, but we’re realising that perhaps for the rest of our lives, we’re going to have to exist without the feeling that our partner is delighted by our presence, fascinated by our character and longing to hold and caress us.
We may be very alone with this situation. If someone walks out of the door, there is great cultural support: there are songs and films, there are condensed bits of wisdom to lean on (…more fish in the sea etc.) and there are some very moving books. People understand and sympathise.
But the death of love in a continuing relationship has been comparatively neglected. There’s even a distinct lack of sympathy that surrounds the topic: to a romantically-minded culture, it can look rather pitiful to stay together for convenience once passion has gone. If romantic love is everything, then a union without desire is a properly offensive phenomenon.
And yet, there might be many good and strong reasons to stay together even when our hearts have, quietly, been broken. It’s not what people dream of but our finances are intertwined, we’ve got shared commitments, perhaps there are children, we’ve developed friends in common, we’ve established ways of living together that might be convenient to us and a great help to others – and there won’t be too many people available who are keen to start a new relationship with us. So we may be wise to stick where we are, despite the deep vein of sorrow and sense of loss that accompanies us through our long evenings.
The support we need is the realisation that, though the situation is painful and undiscussed, it is not for that matter strange or shameful. It is extremely ordinary and even rather noble. If we left and found someone else, we’d probably end up in the same position a few years later – because in some ways love almost always dies. Romantic intensity isn’t a description of life together in the long term. There are, of course, a few exceptions – but we make the mistake of supposing that because very occasionally a couple stays in love for many years, this is something that’s generally available. Instead, we should see it the way we might certain jobs: of course it’s possible for someone to make a great living by being a standup comic, but this is realistically only an option for a very few, deeply unusual individuals: it tells us nothing about what it possible for us. If we are in a relationship where love has died, we are not particularly missing out, we have not particularly failed: we are simply meeting an ordinary, yet rarely described, fate.
They do their homework on time; their writing is neat; they keep their bedroom tidy; they are often a little shy; they want to help their parents; they use their brakes when cycling down a hill.
Because they don’t pose many immediate problems, we tend to assume all is well with good children. They aren’t the target for particular concern; that goes to the kids who are graffitiing the underpass. People imagine the good children are fine; because they do everything that’s expected of them.
And that, of course, is precisely the problem. The secret sorrows – and future difficulties – of the good boy or girl begin with their inner need for excessive compliance. The good child isn’t good because by a quirk of nature they simply have no inclination to be anything else. They are good because they have no other option. Their goodness is a necessity rather than a choice.
Many good children are good out of love of a depressed harassed parent who makes it clear they just couldn’t cope with any more complications or difficulties. Or maybe they are very good to soothe a violently angry parent who could become catastrophically frightening at any sign of less than perfect conduct. Or perhaps the parent was very busy and distracted; only by being very good could the child hope to gain a sliver of their interest.
But this repression of more challenging emotions, though it produces short-term pleasant obedience, stores up a huge amount of difficulty in later life. Practiced educators and parents should spot signs of exaggerated politeness – and treat them as the danger they are.
The good child becomes a keeper of too many secrets and an appalling communicator of unpopular but important things. They say lovely words, they are experts in satisfying the expectations of their audiences, but their real thoughts and feelings stay buried and then generate psychosomatic symptoms, twitches, sudden outbursts and sulphurous bitterness.
The sickness of the good child is that they have no experience of other people being able to tolerate their badness. They have missed out a vital privilege accorded to the healthy child; that of being able to display envious, greedy, egomaniacal sides and yet be tolerated and loved nevertheless.
The good person typically has particular problems around sex. As a child, they may have been praised for being pure and innocent. As they become an adult however, like all of us, they discover the ecstasies of sex, which can be beautifully perverse and excitingly disgusting. But this may be radically at odds with the picture of what they believe they are allowed to be like. They may in response disavow their desires, go cold and detached from their bodies – or perhaps give in to their longings only in a disproportionate way that is destructive to other bits of their lives and leaves them disgusted and frightened.
At work, the good adult has problems too. As a child, they follow the rules; never make trouble and take care not to annoy anyone. But following the rules won’t get you very far in adult life. Almost everything that’s interesting, worth doing or important will meet with a degree of opposition. A brilliant idea will always disappoint certain people – and yet very much be worth holding on to. The good child is condemned to career mediocrity and sterile people-pleasing.
Being properly mature involves a frank, unfrightened relationship with one’s own darkness, complexity and ambition. It involves accepting that not everything that makes us happy will please others or be honoured as especially ‘nice’ by society – but that it can be important to explore and hold on to it nevertheless.
The desire to be good is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the good child) fruitfully and bravely bad.
The prestige of museums has never been higher. Every city that wishes to be on the map knows it must build one. No foreign trip feels complete without taking up the guidebook’s recommendation to visit one. We regularly hear that museums are our ‘new cathedrals’, in other words, the most meaningful and prestigious spaces we have.
Nevertheless, there are – behind the scenes – some serious drawbacks to museums:
– the art in some of them is often – privately – seen as the least interesting bit about them.
– the needs that used to drive people to cathedrals aren’t really being taken care of in our museums (needs that include the desire for serenity, the longing for community, the wish to transcend the everyday).
– we feel conflicted about the role of shopping in museums: is it respectable, where does it fit in?
– what is the balance between preservation of the old and the habits and appetites of the present?
Museums seem so natural and inevitable, we may be reluctant to ask what they are for. An answer is elusive because they are in truth an uncomfortable and rather novel amalgamation of functions:
– a gigantic filing cabinet for the past
– a community centre
– a place for artistic ecstasy
– a shop
– somewhere solemn now God is Dead
– works of architecture in themselves
We generally hold museum culture in extremely high regard. But, equally, we tend not to look very closely at why this culture has such prestige. In fact, we are encouraged to think it is unsophisticated, even vulgar, to ask what culture is for. The present ‘guardians of culture’ are deeply devoted to the idea that art should exist ‘for art’s sake.’ This idea achieved dominance in the late nineteenth century and continues to determine the frame through which we (largely unknowingly) view culture. It dictates that culture should never be appropriated for practical or ideological ends. This is a pity.
The 19th century theory of art for art’s sake was meant to release culture from the clutches of three tainted forces – religion, politics and commerce – each of which was deemed to want something rather too urgent and practical from cultural creators. In flight from these forces, critics asserted that culture was to be kept free of any sort of clearly stated ‘goal’ or ‘end’. It should exist in its own sphere and not be asked to ‘do’ anything much in the world (as religions, political parties and certain pre-modern societies, especially those of Greece and Rome, had explicitly asked it to). On the back of this idea were born all kinds of notions that persist to this day: the veneration of ambiguity and paradox, the horror at being asked what something might be for… Sensible cultural homage is associated with acquiring technical knowledge, with taking advanced qualifications in the humanities, with knowing historical details and with respecting, at least in substantial part, the canon as it is now defined.
Strangely, what we are not generally encouraged to do – and indeed what we might be actively dissuaded from attempting – is to connect up works of culture with the agonies and aspirations of our own lives. It is quickly deemed vulgar, even repugnant, to seek personal solace, encouragement, enlightenment or hope from high culture. We are not, especially if we are serious, meant to view cultural encounters as opportunities for didactic instruction.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, a novel by Ben Lerner, an American PhD student, used to considering art as material for academic analyses and scholarly seminars, visits Madrid’s Prado museum. In one of the quieter rooms, he spots a fellow visitor who moves slowly and looks intently at a range of key works, including Roger van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, Paolo de San Leocadio’s Christ the Saviour and Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
What might it be right to do in front of this?
Rogier Van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (1435–8)
What astonishes the graduate student and eventually the guards of the museum is that in front of each of these masterpieces, the visitor doesn’t merely politely look at the caption or the guidebook; he doesn’t just note the fine brushstroke and the azure of the skies. He bursts into tears and cries openly at the sorrow and beauty on display, at the contrast between the difficulties of his own life and the spirit of dignity and nobility of the works on the wall. Such an outburst of intense emotion is deeply unusual in a museum (museums may routinely be referred to as our secular cathedrals, but they aren’t – as cathedrals once were – intended to be places to reveal one’s grief and gratitude). Listening to the man’s sobs, the guards at the Prado grow understandably confused and nervous. As the author puts it, they cannot decide:
whether he was the kind of man who would damage a painting, spit on it, tear it from the wall or scratch it with a key – or if he was having a profound experience of art… What is a museum guard to do…? On the one hand, you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from the crazed… on the other hand…if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that [great art] could legitimately move a man to tears… Should the guards ask the man to step into the hall and attempt to ascertain his mental state… or should they risk letting this potential lunatic loose among the treasures of their culture?
The dilemma points with dry humour to the paradox of our contemporary engagement with culture: on the one hand, we insist on culture’s importance. On the other, we limit what we are meant to do with culture to a relatively polite, restrained and principally academic relationship, at points frowning on those who might treat it more viscerally and emotionally, as if it might be a sophisticated branch of a notorious category: self-help.
This resistance, however well-meaning, nevertheless misses that the great works of culture were almost invariably created to redeem, console and save the souls of their audiences. They were made, in one way or another, with the idea of changing lives. It is a particular quirk of modern aesthetics to sideline or ignore this powerful underlying ambition, to the point where to shed tears in front of a painting of the death of the son of God may put one at risk of ejection from a national museum.
In a better world, it would be recognised what a historical anomaly the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ has been, running counter to centuries of historic mainstream thinking about the purpose of art. Almost all the art and culture that is to be found in museums, art galleries and libraries was produced by people who believed that art had a purpose which could be stated thus: it was meant to teach us how to be wise, self-aware, kind and reconciled to the darkest aspects of reality. The anti-utilitarian view is a rejection of more than 2,000 years of philosophising on the practical role of the arts.
The idea of art for art’s sake was originally motivated by a noble desire to honour culture, to say how special and important its fields were in a world sullied by meaner, utilitarian aims. Yet, inadvertently, this entrenched view has come to stand in the way of a full engagement with culture, suggesting that its disciplines should not in fact be consequential in the world; that they should not guide our beliefs or shape our habits; that they should not be appreciated for their wisdom or consoling power – for this would be to ‘use’ them…
A lot of the prestige which culture currently enjoys has been won at the expense of another field of human experience, the status of which has declined in direct relation to the rise in the status of art: religion. From the middle of the 19th century onwards, many people (Matthew Arnold, Nietzsche, Heidegger among them) came to the view that, as religion weakened its hold on society and upon people’s inner lives, it would be culture that could step in and perform many of the same roles as the faiths. Culture too could guide, exhort, reassure, console, inspire and censure. It was with this big ambition in mind that a period of vast investment in culture (in museums, in art galleries, in opera houses and libraries) proceeded. Culture would replace scripture. The great institutions of culture – the galleries and the universities – would be the new Cathedrals of Christendom.
In truth, art really can do for us a remarkable number of the very things that religion once did. Culture truly is in a position to replace many of the functions of scripture. Art too has the power to console us, it too can bring meaning and purpose, it too can increase our powers of empathy and generate a sense of community.
But in practice, we tend to pay only lip-service to these ideas. You used to go to the cathedral for some clear reasons: because you wanted to save your soul, because you were looking for comfort, you needed community, you wanted to develop your moral character or you were hoping for consolation and redemption. But if you turned up at a gallery or a university arts faculty with similarly intense, focused concerns, you would be considered very strange, regarded with suspicion and perhaps even declared insane.
However, in a wise and mature society, the therapeutic resources of culture would be taken very seriously. The visual arts, architecture, the humanities, galleries and museums would be deployed to help us cope with our troubles and to flourish, both individually and collectively. Museums would be particularly focused on satisfying a powerful need which churches used to cater for so well: the need for community.
Let’s consider the issue of gift shops. Let’s imagine you’ve been around an art exhibition of a favourite artist. Perhaps it was Barbara Hepworth, the mid-20th-century British sculptor, accorded a show by the Tate Gallery in London. On display were some of her greatest works, including ‘Two Figures’ and ‘Pelagos.’
The show has made you intensely receptive to what one might call the vision of life promoted by Hepworth. It’s a confused feeling, but now that the show is over (you were there for forty minutes) you’d like to take that spirit back out into the world, you’d like to Hepworth-ify important parts of your daily existence. Hepworth seems to you an exemplar of a dignified British modernism that celebrates intellectual rigour, restrained sensuality, elegance, simplicity and harnessed emotional intensity. You want your surroundings and the tenor of your days to take on some of Hepworth’s ideology: you would love your workplace, your railway station, your TV programmes and your relationships to be influenced by her atmosphere (and strangely, it feels normal that the spirit of an artist might spread way beyond particular artworks and be applicable to fields as diverse as architecture and relationships).
It’s in this mood and with these covert aspirations that you find your way to the gift shop. It’s an extremely busy place. Almost everyone who goes to the show spends a few minutes looking around and the line at the till snakes out to the door. You’re excited and ready to spend. This – surely – is the opportunity to Hepworthify your life. So you look around the aisles: there are scholarly monographs (tracing Hepworth’s relationship with the St Ives School and with Henry Moore’s early etchings), there is a large catalogue, there are some postcards, there is a tea towel and there are pencils and mugs with Hepworth’s name on it. The latter seem the most popular items of all.
You want to be receptive to what is on offer but the gift shop seems not to welcome your aspirations. If only there had been other things for sale… Perhaps reproductions of the actual works or guides on how to Hepworth-ify your life… Your desires are rather unclear. All you know is that the gift shop has not lived up to expectations.
This is an important and no way isolated dilemma. The gift shop is quite simply the most important tool for the diffusion and understanding of art in the modern world. Though it appears to be a mere appendage to most museums, the gift shop is central to the project of art institutions. Its job is to ensure that the lessons of the museum – which concern beauty, meaning and the enlargement of the spirit – can endure in the visitor far beyond the actual tour of the premises and be put into use in daily life.
The means deployed, however, are rarely on target. Aside from books, gallery gift shops usually sell postcards and household items with the names of artists on them. Postcards are such important mechanisms because they improve our engagement with art. Officially, our culture sees them as tiny, pale shadows of the far superior originals in the galleries a few metres away. But the encounter we have with the postcard may well be deeper, more perceptive and more valuable to us, because the card allows us to bring our own reactions to it. It feels safe and acceptable to pin it on a wall, throw it away or scribble on the front of it and by being able to behave so casually around it, our responses come alive. We consult our own needs and interests; we take real ownership of the object and because it is permanently available, we keep looking at it at various times. We feel free to be ourselves around it – as so often, and sadly, we do not in the presence of the masterpiece itself.
That said, gift shops will rarely sell us actual reproductions of works; fake, copy, pastiche, forgery. Many of the most bitter insults of the art world are designed to denigrate anything which is not the actual product of the master’s hand. We’ve uncritically absorbed the idea that copies are worthless, deeply embarrassing kitsch. The nightmares of curators and gallery directors are haunted by copies. Hang a reproduction by mistake and your career is over. But why? Why are copies always supposed to be terrible? Even asking this straightforward question is suspect. Sometimes, of course, a copy truly violates the original. It mucks up all the details, it gets proportions weirdly wrong, the colours become garish. But not always. What if it’s a really good copy? What if the details are faithful? What if the shapes are harmonious and the colours lovely? A well-made reproduction can carry 99% of the meaning of the original. And maybe that’s all that really matters to us.
We’ve come to think that art belongs in art galleries and thereby condemned ourselves to encountering works at times dictated by museum opening hours and holiday schedules. We hardly ever get enraged in Tate Britain. So we’re unlikely ever to have direct need of Whistler’s immensely calming vista of fog, water and evening lights when we actually see it in the gallery. So it would be very much better if we could hang a copy of this work in the kitchen or by the bathroom door – places where angst has a tendency to congeal.
Art works have therapeutic power. But usually this passes us by. Not because we are insensitive or unworthy. But for a more basic reason. Their messages are hitting us at the wrong time – at moments when we’ve no need of them – like adverts for winter coats on the first day of spring. Copying is one much-needed solution to this problem, because copies allow us to locate these important, beneficial images in the places where we can encounter them in our times of need.
In the absence of copies, gift shops will sell us a lot of signed tea towels. They have discovered that people will buy objects heavily decorated with names of artists and their works: so we have Picasso table mats and Hepworth pencils.
Such objects try hard to pay homage to artists. They would like to beautify the world and carry the message of artists deep into our homes, so that the spirit of Hepworth would be alive when we prepared the morning tea and Picasso would be with us as we mopped away the orange juice from the kitchen counter. The ambition is noble, but its method of execution perhaps less so. The gift shop objects do have a faint link to the names they honour. Monet probably liked tea-towels; but it is unlikely that he would have wanted one with his own painting printed on it. The spirit of his best works of art, the things we love in them, may be much more consistent with (for instance) a completely plain and beautifully textured towel. This is more truly a Monet towel than one with his name on it.
The point isn’t to surround ourselves with objects which carry the actual identity of the artist and his or her work. It should be to get hold of objects which the artists would have liked, which are in keeping with the spirit of their works – and more broadly to look at the world through their eyes, and therefore to stay sensitive to what they saw in it.
One can imagine a different range of products to sell in the world’s gallery gift shops: objects which would be aligned with the values and ideals of artists rather than with their mere identities. The urge to buy something at the end of a museum visit is a serious one, because it involves an attempt to translate a sensibility we’ve come to know in one area (in carved wood or on canvases showing landscapes) and carry it over into another part of life (keeping the kitchen clean).
This points to the heart of what museums should really be about: giving us tools to extend the range and impact of what we admire in works of art across our whole lives. This is why the gift shop is, in fact, the most important place in the museum – if only its true potential could be grasped and made real.
Let’s consider architecture: even very secular people tend to admit that when it comes to architecture, religions have done some very beautiful things. You can be left utterly cold by all the superstitious aspect of religions, and yet still be in awe at the profundity, intricacy and sheer prettiness of many mosques, temples, cathedrals and churches.
However, any nostalgia for these lovely buildings is always cut short by the thought that an end to faith must inevitably mean an end to the possibility of putting up anything like them today.
Yet on examination, it in no way logically follows that an end to our belief in sacred beings must mean an end to an attachment to certain sorts of atmosphere and architecture. In the absence of gods, we still retain a longing for calm, for community, for grandeur, for sweetness, for perspective – all of which can be found and celebrated through architecture.
We still need secular buildings that, like the temples and cathedrals of old, create feelings of awe, gratitude, wonder, mystery and silence; buildings that bring us together for special moments of the year (the passing of seasons) or to mark key moments of our lives (births, marriages, deaths). We need abstracted awe-inspiring sonorous spaces that take us out of the everyday and encourage contemplation, perspective, love and (at times) a pleasing terror.
There have over the last 200 years been a few examples of buildings that have learnt from religion without themselves being religious – buildings that can inspire new generations of patrons and architects.
The tradition of the non-religious ‘temple’ or ‘chapel’ begins with the French sociologist August Comte in the 19th century, who invented a secular religion, as he called it ‘A religion for humanity’ and designed some temples to go with it. He proposed that specially-built large halls would be decorated with portraits of the pantheon of his new religion’s secular saints, including Cicero, Pericles, Shakespeare and Goethe, all singled out by the founder for their capacity to inspire and reassure us.
A few of these Comte-inspired temples have been built. There is one in the Marais in Paris.
And three more in Brazil, including this one in Porto Alegre:
In the 20th century, the most notable secular chapel is perhaps Mark Rothko’s building in Houston, Texas, a place full of melancholy serenity:
Though nominally a Catholic building, the firm atheist Henri Matisse’s chapel in Vence in the South of France deserves to be counted among the great secular temples.
Equally impressive is Peter Zumthor’s field chapel near Cologne, Germany.
The most recent, and in many ways the most profound and thought-through addition to the genre has been a building by the artist Grayson Perry, dedicated to thwarted female creativity and potential – and ostensibly focused on the cult of a fictional (but so was Mary…) deity called Julie Cope.
The building has been designed to evoke a tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels in the landscape. It is a singular building, appearing as a small, beautifully crafted object amongst the trees and fields.
On a sunny weekend, the building – in north Essex, England – attracts hundreds of ‘pilgrims’:
They come to pay homage to the ‘deity’, Julie Cope, who holds out her hands in a gesture of comfort and sustenance:
These exceptional buildings are in fact only the beginning of a movement that could grow ever larger as the secular world becomes more conscious of its needs.
One could also, for example, imagine a building that would take up the traditional role of religious architecture in returning to us a sense of perspective.
– A Building for Perspective
Considering how much of our lives we spend exaggerating our own importance, it would be highly useful to come across an architecture than answers our need for perspective. Architecture can perform a critical function by adjusting our impressions of our physical – and as a consequence also our psychological – size, by playing with dimensions, materials, sounds and sources of illumination. In certain buildings that are vast in scale or hewn out of massive, antique-looking stones; or in others that are dark save for a single shaft of light filtering in from a distant oculus; or silent but for the occasional sound of water dripping from a great height into a deep pool, we may feel that we are being introduced, with unusual and beguiling grace, to a not unpleasant sense of our own insignificance.
Imagine a ‘temple’ for perspective whose structure would represent the age of the earth, with each centimetre of height equating to one million years. Measuring 46 metres in all, the tower would feature, at its very base, a tiny band of gold only one millimetre thick, standing for mankind’s time on earth.
– A Retreat for Thinking
Or imagine a retreat for focusing our thoughts. It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. The deep, immersive thinking which produced many of civilisation’s most important achievements is now under unprecedented assault. We are almost never far from some machine that will guarantee us a mesmerising and libidinous escape from reality. The feelings and thoughts which we have omitted to feel and think while looking at our screens are left to find their revenge in involuntary twitches and our ever-increasing inability to fall asleep when we should. So we can picture a building for thought would lend structure and legitimacy to moments of solitude. It would be a simple space, offering visitors little beyond a bench or two, a vista and a suggestion that they set to work on unravelling some of the troubling themes that they have been using their normal activity to suppress.
This is only a start: we also need new venues in which to get married, get to know other members of the community, mark deaths and ritualise and lend gravity to key moments of life.
Secular societies should revive and continue the underlying aims of religious architecture: to place us for a time in a thoughtfully-structured, three-dimensional space in order to educate and rebalance our inner selves.
One of the most frightening aspects of working life is that we will, unless we are the beneficiaries of extreme good fortune, be required to have colleagues. The colleague is a creature who, endured over any length of time in situations of high stress and procedural complexity, presents one of the greatest threats to calm, composure and soundness of mind.
It is a noteworthy that, in the nineteenth century, one specific working environment developed into a hugely popular subject for painters: the artist’s studio. Archetypal paintings of studios showed high ceilinged rooms with large windows, views over neighbouring rooftops, sparse furniture, messy tables covered in tubes of paint and half finished masterpieces propped up against the walls. There was one additional factor that particularly enticed the collective imagination: there was no one in the studio apart from the artist. At exactly the time when more and more people were being gathered into ever larger offices and experiencing for the first time all the attendant compromises and constrictions, there grew a craving for paintings of an alternative utopia, a place of work consolingly free of the damnable presence of the colleague.
Georg Friedrich Kersting. Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1819
We’ve ended up in offices not by bad luck, but by the unavoidable fact that the mighty tasks of modern capitalism simply cannot be undertaken on one’s own. It remains (sadly) impossible to run an airline or manage a bank solo.
The problem with colleagues begin with the fundamental yet hugely tricky challenges associated with trying to communicate the content of one’s mind to another person. When we are doing things by ourselves, the flow of information is immediate and friction-free. If we could listen in to our inner monologues, they would be made up of a baffling speedy series of assertions and jumbled words: ‘narr, yes. come on! Do it till then, after no more. Ah, nearly, nononono, back…. OK got it got it… NO. Yes. That’s fine. So.’
But when we collaborate, we must laboriously turn the stream of consciousness (which only we can follow) into unwieldy externally-comprehensible messages. We have to translate feelings into language, temper our wilder impulses, affix paragraphs to intuitions – all in order to generate prompts and suggestions that have a chance of being effective in the minds of other people.
By a horrid quirk of psychology, others simply can’t by instinct alone understand what we need and want – though it can seem as though surely they must. The realisation that other people are not like us and can’t guess what we want takes a long time to sink in – and the idea perhaps always remains a bit foreign and unjust. In their earliest days, babies simply don’t realise that their mothers are in fact separate beings – and so get very frustrated when these reluctant appendages don’t by magic obey their unstated wishes. Only after a long and very difficult process of development (if ever) can a child realise that a parent is truly a distinct individual – and that in order to make themselves understood by them, they will have to do more than grunt and imagine solutions in their heads. It can be the work of a lifetime, in which the office occupies a particularly painful passage, to gradually accept the impossibility of mutual mind reading.
If this were not bad enough, many colleagues are at high risk of not sharing our underlying vision of what should be done. They have contrary opinions, their own quirks, pet peeves and obsessive interests. To get our point across and assuage their resistance requires us to deploy a battery of diplomatic skills. At the very moment when – agitated and overwhelmed – we would ideally like simply to shout or bark, it turns out we have no option but to charm.
This is because the colleague is, on top of it all, extremely sensitive. They will – unless they are spoken to correctly – become offended, develop grudges, start to cry or report one to a superior.
The imperative to be pleasant at work is a novel one we are still getting used to. In the olden days, brusqueness used to be the norm: it was a good way to get people to turn a boat swiftly starboard, push coal trolleys faster, or increase the rate of production at the blast furnace in a steel mill. When most work was physical, management could be abrupt; workers could feel underappreciated or bullied and nevertheless be able to perform their required tasks to perfection. Emotional distress didn’t hold things up. One could still operate the brick making machine at maximum speed, even if one hated the manager, or clean out the stables thoroughly even if one felt the foreman hadn’t enquired deeply enough into the nature of one’s weekend.
But nowadays, most jobs require a high degree of psychological well-being in order to be performed adequately. A wounding comment can destroy a person’s productivity for a whole day. Without ample respect, recognition and encouragement, huge sums of money will be wasted in silently resentful moods. If one has any concern for the bottom line, one has no alternative but to try to be a bit nice.
At the same time, the inability to speak frankly has its own enormous cost. A huge amount of valuable information that should make its way around a company is held back by the imperative not to cause offence. One holds one’s tongue because one is scared to upset juniors, to alienate colleagues and to ruin one’s relationships with superiors – and in the process, insights that might help an organisation to thrive stay locked in individual hearts.
Work relationships are no less tricky than romantic ones, but at least in the latter, we have a basic sense of security that enables one to speak one’s mind and make the necessary cathartic moves – to call them fuckwits and compress a range of ideas in the occasional expletive loaded outburst. The office environment misses out on the cleansing frankness seemingly possible only when two people know they will have the option of having sex together after the bust-up.
At the heart of our office agonies is the complaint that we seldom like our colleagues as people. In a better world, we would be unlikely ever to want to spend any time at all with such disturbing, and often unlikely, figures. We shouldn’t be surprised by our daily discomfort, given that these people were never picked out on the basis of psychological compatibility. We were formed into a unit because they had a range of technical and commercial competences necessary for a task – not because they were fun lunch companions or were graced with a pleasing manner. We are like the unfortunate bride in a power-marriage in the middle ages. A princess would be obliged to marry a certain prince because he owned an important lead mine or the archers in his country were especially proficient. It would have been nice if the two liked each other a bit as well, but the stakes would be too high for this to be a relevant factor. The success of the realm depended on such matters as access to raw materials and military strength, not on whether the partner had a maddening giggle or a daunting overbite.
There is yet another challenge posed by colleagues. Corporations and businesses are fundamentally hierarchical, with an ever smaller number of desirable, better rewarded places at the pinnacle. A naive outsider might imagine that career progression would be determined by clear, precise and public determinants of merit, probably of a technical or financial sort, akin to the straight-forward nature of the sort of examination results we all grew up with. But the reality is that in many occupations, no verifiable measure of performance is available. Factors of success are too numerous, opaque and shifting. What therefore decides who is promoted is not talent per se, but success at a range of dark psychological arts best summed up by the term ‘politics’.
Political skill has woefully little in common with the reasons we were trained and hired to do our jobs in the first place. We may, as part of a good business education, have spent years studying the way to navigate a balance sheet, analyse competitors, negotiate contracts, and administer a logistics chain. But when we reach the office, we will be confronted by other, less familiar kinds of challenges: the person at the desk opposite us with the charming manner who enthusiastically agrees with whomever they’re speaking to, yet who harbours a range of toxic reservations and privately pursues their own undeclared agenda; the person who responds to polite criticism or well-meaning feedback with immediate hurt and fury; the person who pretends to be our friend but knows exactly how to take the credit for our best efforts.
In such situations, the most unlovely qualities may turn out to be the most necessary ones: the capacity to quietly accept glory for things that were not truly our doing; to distance ourselves from errors in which we were in fact implicated; to subtly foreground the failings of otherwise quite able colleagues; to turn cold at key moments towards emotionally vulnerable superiors; to flatter while not appearing to do so; to mould our views to suit the currently ascendant attitudes.
Such grey, underhand strategies are not easy to pick up and they may feel plainly impossible for us to practice if we pride ourselves on being straightforward, direct or even just somewhat ethical. Yet we can be certain that any high-minded refusal of duplicity will carry a heavy cost indeed.
Our problems with the collegial nature of work are compounded, as ever, by the implication that matters should in fact be rather straightforward. Our inevitable difficulties are aggravated by notions that offices are at heart really giant families, that colleagues can be friends, that honesty is rewarded and that talent will win out. Kindly sentimentality is in the end, just a disguised version of cruelty. It might be a lot simpler if, in dark moments, we could simply admit to what we know in our hearts: that it would obviously be a great deal better if we could be shot of the whole business of colleagues and spend our days, as we used to so well, comfortably on the floor in our room assembling cargo planes, city car parks and picnics for families of bears.
Before there was Feminism in the wealthy developed nations, there reigned a system called patriarchy, or what we could call – for the sake of a certain symmetry – Masculinism.
Masculinism had its noble chivalric sides for sure, but it was undoubtedly also profoundly oppressive for a great many people. It involved all kinds of legal, professional and political constraints against women. And at a psychological level, Masculinism set up a stringent idea of what a normal human being should be like and what they should feel – and then shamed at least half of the population into believing that their tastes, interests and ways of being were at odds with being normal.
So for example, Masculinism promoted notions:
– that it was normal to be profoundly emotionally stoic and reserved
– that crying was shameful
– that one should be interested in war, hunting and fighting
– that one shouldn’t feel tenderly towards babies or sacrifice career for family life
– that one should keep love and sex entirely apart
– that it was natural that men should want to sleep casually with women, could then discard them coldly and would probably keep a mistress if they could afford to once they were married
– that real men were obsessed by the looks of women and were far more interested in these than in their minds and emotions
– that men and women weren’t meant to be friends; and should socialise separately
Needless to say, Masculinism made a lot of people very sad. It even made some men sad, those who didn’t subscribe to the macho, military stoic, predatory ideal; those who might occasionally have wanted a cry and didn’t view sex as some brutal fugitive act.
Hence the immense debt that women and men owe to those who pioneered the Feminist movement, which took shape in Western Europe in the late 19th century and which has gathered strength ever since. Feminism courageously challenged the legal and political hurdles set up by Masculinism. It gave women the vote, allowed them to control their finances, offered them sovereignty over their own bodies, fought for equal pay and sensitised society to the prevalence of domestic violence.
It also tried to change prevailing value systems. It discredited the stoic macho ideals of Masculinism. It challenged why war and fighting should be thought of as inherently noble. It highlighted the value of close involvement in family life. It argued that love and sex could go together and that fidelity might be a key ingredient of a strong relationship.
At the same time, in certain quarters, Feminism seemed to go further. Like branches of Masculinism before it, it set up ideas of what a normal human being might be like and what they should feel – and then gave many the impression that their tastes, interests and ways of being were at odds with normality and hence potentially really rather ‘bad’.
Under the influence of a certain type of Feminism, people learnt to be newly careful around:
– any overly direct interest in women’s appearance
– any expressions of sexuality shorn of commitment
– any signs of bias against women that might reside at an unconscious level and emerge in a wounding way through the use of language
Paradoxically, those most likely to be shamed by this kind of Feminism were not the boorish, violent and openly prejudiced members of society; but rather many more mild-tempered characters who were very keen not to offend, and yet could see that some of their impulses might, if admitted to freely, cause sudden unwitting offence to the people whose friendships and respect they sought.
As a way to resolve some of the tensions of our current age, we might suggest a somewhat radical intellectual step; insisting that Feminism as we know it has not been a movement primarily concerned with gender. Though it may seem as if its concerns have been the rights and the position of women, Feminism has in its very essence arguably always been focused on a prior and much grander goal: Kindness.
Feminism has been a giant, immensely skilful and emotionally intelligent moral movement that has sought to convince people across the world to be nicer and more understanding towards one another. That some of these people who have had to learn this lesson have been men and that some of the people doing the teaching have been women is, at one level, not the boldest, most striking or most fundamental aspect of Feminism. Properly understood, Feminism is not simply committed to issues around gender; it is a movement that attempts to raise consciousness around how people hurt one another, often without even noticing and in ways that stretch from economics to law to pay to the minutiae of personal life. It simply so happens that if Kindness is the goal, then in the particular historical period in which it emerged, it was natural for Feminism immediately to address the most unfortunate aspects of Masculinism as its leading priority, given that these constituted some of the greatest sources of cruelty and oppression.
With Feminism reinterpreted like this, we’re in a position to start to see that women and men who identify with Feminism’s aims are at heart not Feminists per se but in their background ideology something more encompassing; they are what we could call NICEISTS, that is, people committed to a fairer, kinder, gentler, more empathetic conduct between all humans.
That is why Niceism stands ultimately to replace both Feminism and Masculinism as the true focus of social development. A project that’s become identified with gender stands to reach for an even greater prize; a world where no one of any gender makes anyone else feel unnecessarily ashamed, where ideals of normality are extremely broad and inclusive in all directions and where the commitment to be in every way tolerant, kind, fair and respectful dominates over any other competing priority.
That would mean the supremacy of something logically superior even to Feminism or its troubled predecessor Masculinism: the universal triumph of Niceism.
Many new and potentially very worthwhile ideas for products and services are routinely cast aside by companies with the objection: we must give customers what they want. Which really means: what we have sold them (and prospered from selling them) until now.
Beneath this response lies a widespread view that consumers must already have a clear and settled idea of what they are looking for in any particular area – and that this cannot change any more than the cycle of the planets or the laws of motion. Reference to customer taste is therefore a reason to close down any suggestion that deviates from present patterns of demand.
At its worst, an idea of the unbudgeable nature of customer desire becomes a justification for a businesses to serve up fairly dispiriting things. It explains the dogged adherence to mediocre food:
And standardised holiday offerings.
The idea of giving customers what they want feels powerful for several reasons. It’s always tempting to stick with a currently successful model that paid for your office, pension scheme and (perhaps) jet. It can also seem arrogant or plain snobbish to hint that there might be a way in which customers don’t quite know what they want – and that you might be the person to understand tastes they’ve as yet given no evidence of having. Finally, insisting you have the answer to the unexplored wishes of consumers can put you in a recklessly vulnerable position in the politics of the office.
The consequence is that avenues of pleasure and satisfaction go unexplored and opportunities for growth are set aside – and move elsewhere (normally to start-ups). Many people in a given corporation may well feel unexcited by the current focus. They might be working fairly hard to meet their sales targets but they are running only for the money rather than tapping into the great resources we find in ourselves when we truly believe in what we are doing. Yet, when someone says that perhaps the business could offer something more impressive, the same answer tends to come back: we have to give people what they want. It’s a way of thinking that lends confidence to the most conservative impulses in our nature.
But the core notion of ‘giving the customer what they want’ is profoundly under-examined and worthy of critical assessment. Of course, the idea of pleasing customers is not in dispute. What needs to be targeted, however, is the mistaken assumption – working away in the background – that what people want is a fixed factor – when in truth, what people want is dramatically malleable, contingent and divergent.
The idea that what people want is already well established is invariably based on a very small time frame and geographically-bounded sample-size. All we need to do is widen the angle of observation, and a remarkably different picture always emerges. For anyone seeking the confidence to make changes, there’s one unexpected place for immediate inspiration: the history of Culture.
When we look back in time, we see an extraordinary range of foreign concerns that seem to violate what we currently understand as consumer taste. For example, in 18th century Britain, members of the same species as we belong to today, the species reputed only to have an appetite for talent shows and celebrity quizzes on TV, got interested on a big scale in poetry. Alexander Pope, the leading poet of the day introduced the twelve syllable hexameter (against the advice of many) and was convinced that consumers would be highly sensitive to its rhythms. He was right. People loved the slightly slower pace and the neater rhymes it made possible – and he was able to buy himself a magnificent villa, just outside London, on the proceeds.
How did a poet earn enough to have this house?
In an age when we tell ourselves that the only way to be erotic is to reveal more of our bodies, we can take inspiration from a look back to 18th century English fashion, when covering everything except your angle was all the rage.
A tiny lift in the hemline gave ankles a new meaning
The raking of gravel is not something that, at present, seems like a major human concern. But in Japan, over many centuries, people became interested in the patterns into which gravel could be arranged in even very small gardens. Getting it right was hugely important to them. They also became very sensitive to the different characteristics of moss and the best ways of grouping rocks together. It’s evidence of how – under the right encouragement – large groups of people can become highly sensitive to features which, in other societies, go entirely unnoticed.
There have been so many moments in cultural history where huge leaps occurred in the kind of things people realised they could like.
There were plenty of people at first who were convinced the public would never go for works like this
In 1874, the First Impressionist Exhibition met with immense abuse. There was a widespread feeling amongst art dealers that the public would never warm to things which were so different from what they were currently buying, with brushworth that was choppy, deliberately disjointed and imprecise. However, within a few years, the art market was transformed.
Until 1915 most sculpture looked rather like this:
Then people quickly started getting more excited by this:
These cultural instances reveal a fundamental fact about how the whole basis of our excitement can shift in dramatic ways. Taste is a variable factor. We’re very good at appreciating moves of taste in retrospect – but in advance we are so much less alive to the inevitable repetition of the phenomenon. Therefore, businesses routinely end up assuming that their customers don’t care about anything they are not currently getting; and get bogged down in the worry that if they introduced something they feel is better – but rather different from current offerings – they will be punished. Such timidity tends to doom them.
Many businesses could be expanded, redefined or started on more competitive lines by taking consumer demand to new and very good places. There are three guiding principles for changing consumer taste:
1. Doing it with Confidence
If you have a good idea which is at the moment out of kilter with the norm, it’s important to be entirely unapologetic. Friedrich Nietzsche is arguably the most admired philosopher of all time; thousands of graduate students are currently writing theses using his ideas. But for much of his career he was an isolated individual living in cheap hotel rooms. But you can’t tell this from his books, which are miracles of confidence. He continually announces himself as the voice of a new era and insists that all philosophy hitherto has been awaiting for his insights to be properly useful. You don’t get the impression that he’s living with almost no friends or that he can’t afford a new pair of shoes.
Nietzsche is demonstrating that confidence is a powerful psychological tool: the well-expressed sureness of one person is infectious. Confidence relies on a crucial insight: people looking on are less securely wedded to their current beliefs than we usually suppose. The confident person remembers that most people want to fit in. So if you carry it off, they will fit in with you.
2. Connecting yourself to the Past
When the Swiss architect Le Corbusier wanted to enthuse the world about modern design, he made a move all innovators can learn from. Rather than saying that modernist architecture was new, he went far out of his way to show that it was in fact a direct continuation of the most revered traditions of the architecture of the past. It was more loyal to the past than more recent work. His polemical text, Towards a New Architecture, repeatedly drew analogies between the modern things he liked, cars and planes especially, and the most prestigious objects of Ancient Western culture. He was placing what he – and people like him – approved of in a bigger narrative, laying claim to a sense of natural progression. He wasn’t just making this up as a convenient cover story. He was helping his audience to trust that what was new was in fact, all along, faithful to what they already loved.
Picasso made a similar move when in 1957 he painted his own version of one of the central masterpieces of European art: Las Meninas by Velázquez (painted in 1656). Picasso’s style was radically different from that of his predecessor. But Picasso was situating his work within the grandest tradition of artistic ambition, teaching his viewers that respect for tradition was entirely consistent with enthusiasm for his own work.
3 . Refusing all market research
A standard idea of companies seeking to innovate but at the same time cover their backs is to commission market research – hoping thereby to discover the latent but till now unexplored needs of their customers.
But asking people about their preferences can never give us valuable clues as to what they could, perhaps quite soon, come to want – given the right prompting – because most of us are simply not self-aware enough to know what is missing from our lives. We know what we like when, but not a minute before, we are given it. We cannot know the shape of our future needs, no more than bookshop browsers in 1910 could have given a pollster an accurate description of their appetite for In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, a novel that these customers would nevertheless be enjoying in large numbers only a few years later.
The only way to produce the products of the future is to interrogate one’s own soul with sufficient tenacity and insight. In other words, to be creative. An over-reliance on market research is a fateful obstacle to innovation (and therefore growth and profit), for it can never show us how things that do not yet exist will answer to an audience’s tastes.
The idea that companies should simply give people what they want isn’t as powerful a route to safety as it can sound. It is indeed at odds with the bigger facts of culture which show just how flexible, surprising and fast-moving change often is.
We are still at the dawn of the history of commercial opportunity. At the moment we have firmly in our sights certain needs which have produced reliable returns – the need for petrol cars that are individually owned, for large handbags with golden clasps, for TV shows with large laughing audiences… But, comparatively speaking, we’ve barely scratched the surface of human needs. There might be so many new and different things we could come to care about. To close, we’d like to sketch very briefly how four large commercial areas could evolve.
The news industry is going through tough times. Suggesting that this has anything to do with the quality of the product is likely to receive a sharp rebuff from those in the business. The diet of murders, celebrity stories and sarcastic interviews with politicians is apparently exactly what the public wants. But is it really? Might there be room for innovations that appeal to different sides of our natures, sides of us that love sex but not sexual titillation, that want things to be entertaining but meaningful, that want to know bad news but also remain purposeful and resilient?
The houses we build
Property developers tell us that taste in housing has all been settled long ago. Customers want either glass towers filled with apartments or else neo-Georgian villas in the suburbs. At the moment some of the biggest architectural developments around the world are assessed only with respect to a couple of areas of interest: are they the tallest in the world and is their shape similar to some small item like a piece of fruit or a phone? But in principle we, the audience, could be sensitised to other, possibly more important, characteristics: do our homes enhance the skyline, do they sit nicely amongst their neighbours at street level or how will they look in 50 years time?
How we go on holiday
At present holidays are categorised by destination: beach, city, mountains and so on. Very little attention has been paid to one’s more emotional desires: to repair a relationship, to bond with the family, to make new friends, to spend time alone. We’re not collectively sensitised to new and potentially very helpful ambitions about what a holiday could be for.
The fast-food we eat
Apparently it has to be burgers and fries, especially when we are in a drive-in. But we’re the same species that, in 16th century Japan, ate squid and fried eel on the go – and in Ancient Rome, snacked on marinated duck livers. A far wider road lies open before us than we have as yet dared to imagine.