A former student, Sophie, wrote to me telling me what she was up to. Her note came out of the blue, she has just been commissioned for a photo journalism piece and she was keen to let me know. Through her time in the Sixth Form there were a variety of bumps in the road and the usual angst about courses at university and what she wanted to do.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with some parents on Tuesday morning at the Year 7 Welcome Day where we agreed that sometimes the career finds you rather than the other way around and you just have to be patient. Our IBM partners had a different take on this in their Design Thinking session on Wednesday. They challenged the students to think not so much about what career they would follow as what difference they want to make in the world. Sophie was a keen amateur photographer back then and it was this passion she followed. She kindly sent me a link to some of her work and it is stunningly good. I don’t think this is the uncritical conclusion of one with association to the artist, but it just is.
One exhibition caught my eye very particularly. It is a series of black and white images of Sophie’s sister. Sophie’s sister is autistic and her intention was to tell her story through images. What transpires is a genuinely moving portrait of an individual realising their essence through existence, you might want to get Jean-Paul on the phone and let him know. There are no magnificent natural backdrops, just family scenes of making tea with granddad, going to the shops and the cinema and pushing a sleeping Dad of the sitting room sofa. The sublime beauty of the common place, the momentousness of monotonous ordinariness.
Orwell does this in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and again in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. There is not just a kind of beauty but Beauty in the authenticity of things being themselves. Unadorned and simple, the honesty is the transformative quality that is the hallmark of beauty. I am touching on what Keats described:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
But I do not think that this is a misty-eyed romantic notion of the period, there is much to Keats that contains a dreamy self-indulgence, but that in itself doesn’t mean he is wrong in this regard. He may indeed long for the “blushful Hippocrene”, but on a Friday night he is one of many with the same end. His work is pointing out that the representation of aspects of existence which capture the essence of that exitence are beautiful because of their truthfulness. Aristotle defines this approach as mimesis μίμησις, it is a representation of nature or reality that invites the observer to consider and reflect. It is more about showing than it is about telling. Aristotle goes on in his Poetics to make the observation that in drama, particularly tragedy, this approach is cathartic.
Now let’s think about that for a second. Representing or for emphasis, “the re-presentation of things as they are” may allow us an opportunity to relive experiences, in an environment where the artist’s work contains and contextualises that which is relived is quite different to a slavish copying of nature. The reliving might be akin to what one does in talking about something that bothers you. In the act of talking is the essence of the solution and the unburdening is cathartic; it feels better to get something off one’s chest. In the midst of these musings on art, the beautiful and the drive to be authentic, I was caught by reports of a teenager’s social media account being inundated with images. The pictures were not disturbing in themselves, but the homogeneity of them was. Far from being a representation of the nature of things, the images were “flawless”. Um, what might that mean?
Earlier I mentioned the notion that Beauty is the realisation of things for what they are, the truthfulness of things, the authenticity of the ordinary. The accounts of pressure to look a certain way, to confirm to type are in vogue, but they always have been. Fashion and trends to appear in a particular way or so forth are innocuous, but only to a point, they are routine and part of the ebb and flow of our changing tastes. Nothing wrong with that, even if much of it passes me by, but twas ever thus. My concern is the more Orwellian wall of pressure to conform that now has amplification through more sustained methods.
In Sophie’s drive to represent her sister as she is, her narrative of the visual allows us to draw a conclusion rather than to be pressured to follow a would-be convention. It is her honesty to be authentic that makes the difference. It is in not comparing children with each other, but in looking for the best in everyone and in expecting each to realise their own potential that we are being authentic as a community. It is what makes us special, unique and it is what makes all the difference in the world.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)