This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
Extract from Wislawa Szymborska’s Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, 1996.
I came across this today listening to a podcast of The Verb, a BBC Radio Three programme dedicated to all things wordy. It’s presented by Ian McMillan, a poet whose northern (Barnsley, to be precise) vowels give the lie to the idea of poetry being for the elite. It’s part of a collection of speeches ‘that changed the world’ put together by Shaun Usher and I was struck by the motif of not knowing. After all, that’s how science works; not by finding out and shutting the book, but by examining what the finding out means and asking where we go from there. It’s the kind of not knowing that isn’t about helplessness, it’s about curiosity; a quest for the ‘what next’, onion-peeling, if you like.
I do like. That a poet might also like came as a surprise, but why should it? Writers, poets, are all about bringing other lives and other ways of living to readers, with carefully crafted words designed to pull the threads of certainty and unravel our complacency. To do that, they surely have to be explorers themselves; curious and unknowing in the sense of being unhampered by assumption.
It occurs to me that art most likely does the same thing. In fact, what else were surrealists like Dali doing if not messing with our perceptions of what constitutes solidity in the physical world? Latterly, the likes of Banksy have been forcing us to think about social justice; reminding us in fact that there’s a lot we don’t know and that ignorance may be destructive if it isn’t accompanied by searching questions.
So where does that leave me and my art? However competent I might be at this, I have choices about what I make of my output. Pretty, cute, and decorative (I’ll admit to a small stream of cats making it to the card, print, and lap tray stage) or challenging and meaningful? Is it that simple? Is it actually a binary choice? Somehow I doubt it but I’m not far enough into this to provide supportive evidence. I know though that it seemed possible to interpret Magic Roundabout on two levels:
L is for LSD and every other drug under the sun. This is the Magic Roundabout’sanswer to The Da Vinci Code. In the geekish mythology of children’s television only the debate about whether Captain Pugwash had a character called Master Bates generates as much heat. (It did not). Conspiracy theorists have made much of Dougal’s sugar-cube habit (LSD?) and Brian’s speediness (amphetamines), while the rabbit’s name, Dylan, and all-round spaciness have only fuelled speculation on about what he may have been smoking. And why, too, does Ermintrude spend all day chewing flowers which makes her head spin round? In this interpretation, Mr Rusty’s invitation to the others to take a “trip” on the roundabout is far from innocent. The set’s psychedelic colours and Zebedee’s passing resemblance to Frank Zappa are wheeled out as supporting evidence.
What also seems evident from even a cursory glance at art history, (I used Art: the whole story, this 2018 edition edited by Stephen Farthing and published by Thames & Hudson), is that so much of it is story-telling. There’s depiction – or representation – of actual events, illustration of events that ‘must have been real’ according to prevailing beliefs and theologies, and also cameos, little blinks of the eye into private moments of domestic activity*. They’re documentary but not without commentary. Art asks questions on its own behalf but also of those of us who watch. It feels now, in the context of that Nobel acceptance speech, that art too ‘doesn’t know’ and it doesn’t know in the best way possible.
*I’ve ignored for now the vast amount of nudity in art, most of it female under the gaze of men, because that is an issue I think we’re addressing later in the course and one which has considerable relevance today as women’s voices become louder in asserting their (our) right to be seen and heard in what is still largely a male world.