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  • Dougie

History has not finished with us yet. Nor we with it.

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

I have spent today doing what I wrote this morning in my social media feeds I would do with my day. I stopped. I rested because I'm tired.


It was late morning before I made into my wheelchair with Spike's help. We sat together for a while in the garden, me drinking tea while watching bees and butterflies intoxicate themselves on Spike's exuberant Russian Sage. Spike persevered in the shade for a while but it was way too hot. She went indoors to finish her coffee. I was not that far behind.


I read my usual many articles in The Guardian, surfed through politics and current affairs pages on various other web sites. Played albums from my past over YouTube -- Pink Floyd (obviously) then John Martyn, Van Morrison (the 'Rave on' years rather than the pain-in-the-ass conspiratorial recent past) and melancholic songs by women with mesmerizing voices: Adele, Eva Cassidy, Freya Ridings, Gretchen Peters, Sarah McLachlan and Annie Lennox (again ... sort of goes without saying).


Silly old duffer. Go figure.

A boy stands alone in front of Picasso's great painting.
Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso

Later in the day I finished reading Christopher Butler's short book / long essay from 2010, Modernism: A Very Short Introduction. The book ends with a section on Pablo Picasso's Guernica.


I was relieved to discover I have retained at least a few threads from my undergraduate days studying the literature of Modernism (among other -isms ... Romanticism, Postmodernism, Post Colonialism, Feminism). So, I wasn't surprised that it was with this iconic painting that Professor Butler closed his book.


If any single work of art (literature, music, painting, movie) signals the end of Modernism (not that historical periods work that way) Picasso's great painting is probably the one. Not simply because it was 1937.


The world before and after the murderous bombing of the people and the town -- as well as the cultural landscape before and after the painting -- do seem to occupy different universes. Not far distant but not entirely the same, in some way.


I'm not sure I could tell you exactly how those worlds differ. There were fascist, of course, and world war but I mean something more than those cataclysms. And different in ways I can't quite articulate. My want of a fuller understanding is -- on it's own -- sufficient reason to continue studying, reading and writing. I do feel I have re-discovered the subject (in all its depth, diversity and complexity) that genuinely interests me.


In the final pages of Christopher Butler's long essay on Modernism the recently deceased academic wrote as follows:


Picasso's picture is an excellent example of the boundary conflict of modernist with realist art and with the political demands that can be imposed on experimental work. Much obviously depends -- indeed, far too much always depends -- on the politics of the moment. The 'clear' political interpretation of the photographs (let alone reporting in the press) helped to make Guernica urgent. But in the longer perspective, one may be more deeply and continuously grateful to the arts, and particularly those of modernism, for their neoclassical and universalising generic models, and their continuingly humanistic moral and political demands, and their willingness to bring cultures together, by seeing differing theological and political frameworks through their myths and symbols. In doing so, they can reveal something profound, and also conflicted and challenging about human behaviour. This is what the Guernica picture has depended upon for its longer life as a masterpiece. It is the amazingly strong afterlife of the great modernist works, and their continuing relevance to quite different political contexts ... which should count for us.

But one might well ask which, of politics and culture, is the real container, and which is the contained? I believe that a nation's culture, let alone the collective European culture which inspired most modernists (including its favoured historical narratives) , should always be thought of as the container of its politics (which we must always hope can be defeated, in its worst manifestations), rather than vice versa.

It is the broad and inclusive cultural sympathies of modernism which make it so essential to the culture and conflicts of the present day, which face the challenges of this century, but cannot afford to to forget the historical lessons, or the artistic wisdom, of the previous one.


(Christopher Butler, Modernism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press)


I finished reading those final words and immediately felt how strongly I connected with their underlying sentiment. The creative arts matter and affect us. Our cultural lives are not all self-knowing, postmodern irony and superficiality.


The rather static idea of the container and contained may be too ridged, of course, because -- surely -- politics (like other human impulses) can and does re-shape culture. The container is altered over time by all that it contains. Old and new.


There is no Canon (traditionally dead white men). There is no 'right' or 'wrong' subject matter; no meaningful distinctions between what some folks call high, middle or low 'brow' art which 'better' or 'worse' artists create for the rest of us to praise, condemn or dismiss.


There is, however, art that sticks (endures) and for a reason. Among the works that I've experienced for myself I might list these (more or less off the top of my head):

We all have our personal preferences and individual 'tastes'. But fundamentally I agree with and am persuaded by Christopher Butler's proposition. Enduring art matters to us all.


I searched for a contact email for the academic to thank him for his book. It was then I learned that Christopher Butler died two years ago. I found an article 'In Appreciation of Christopher Butler' by Peter Conrad, an Australian academic who studied under the late Proctor of Christ Church College, Oxford, then taught alongside him for many years.


It is a warm, loving article. The depth of the relationship between the two scholars and the character of Christopher Butler shine through.


And now I'm ready for bed.


I posted this to social media today:

"I am resting on this Burns Night / Australia Day with a mug of hot tea and pastry from Canberra's excellent Three Mills Bakery under a hot southern sun. On the land of the Ngunnawal people, never ceded. #Voice #VoteYes #Treaty"

On this, our 'national holiday' ... Change the Day ... is what I think.


For tens of thousands of years of continuous human culture Australia Day wasn't 'a thing'. It wasn't even an all-Australia 'national' day until 1994.


A cultural nanosecond or so after we -- Australia -- have the maturity, self-confidence and sense of human compassion to choose some other date, the quicker we'll move forward towards a more respectful, inclusive and better future for everyone who calls this big island, "home".


We -- and I do mean we -- the White European (primarily British) colonisers began our dispossession of this land on 26 January 1788.


We stole it from the people who already lived here. Ostensibly to set up a prison. And we keep it even now.


This makes perfect sense to me ...


We cannot undo what our forebears did. But we can learn from the past. And we don't have to live in it.


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