Cultural thinking

I’ve just returned from visiting an art exhibition curated by a friend of mine, Tom Helyar-Cardwell.

When I arrived, Tom greeted me and introduced me to the lady he had been talking to.

“Are you an artist?” the lady asked me.

“No, just a friend of Tom’s,” I replied.

“You’re a cultural thinker though, aren’t you?” Tom interjected.

I was touched; I liked that. It felt more active than being a culture-watcher, and less self-serving than merely being a culture consumer.

Then I went to view the exhibits, and I felt the responsibility of such a label – aaagh! Now I can’t just look at the paintings and sculptures, I have to read them; to think about them, to work out what they say to me. Can I handle the pressure?!

In trepidation I read the exhibition description. Great title (Prophets at Home), though I’m not entirely sure I followed the thread of why it was called that (sorry, Tom!), then I scrutinised the exhibits.

This isn’t really my taste in art, as Tom will know. I don’t know enough about art history and technique to understand what any given piece is drawing on, critiquing, emulating or subverting. I can appreciate the creativity and (in some more than others) the skill involved in the process, but do they really have anything to say to me? And will I be able to hear and understand it if they do?

For the most part, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. But reflecting afterwards on my new designation, I remembered the two pieces which had most stood out to me: Head 35 by Edwin Aitken and Vision by Simon Burton. They both depicted faces, at different levels of obscurity. Head 35 particularly had compelling eyes, staring out from beneath the encircling swirls of red and black paint.

I don’t know what I was supposed to understand from these paintings, what the artists had in mind when forming them, but as I pondered the role of a ‘cultural thinker’, I pictured myself peering into the culture – into the art, the plays, the stories and the moral quandaries, and finding it, like these two faces, peering back.

When I look deeply into the culture, not content to take it at face value, but searching for the thoughts, expectations, hopes, dreams, opinions and assumptions underpinning it, I need to remember that it’s not about the artefacts – it’s about the people, the human beings, the souls buried deep inside. If I am not – if you on this journey with me are not – alert to the fearful-hopeful eyes hiding under the layers of cultural expression, then our lives are little more than culture-tourism.

I’m a cultural thinker – if I deserve that title at all – not because I collect mental postcards of attractions on the landscape to file away in my private album, but because I want to understand the terrain in order to be better equipped for the search and rescue operation that is to come.

Who’s with me?

If you’re London-based, you can visit Tom’s exhibition at the Kingsgate Gallery (West Hampstead) until this Sunday, 20 March. For more details click here.

To read more about Tom and see some of his own artworks, click here.

2 Comments On This Topic
  1. Bola
    on Apr 8th at 1:00 am

    I read this article a day or two after it was posted online and it has challenged me a lot ever since to pay more attention to what goes on around me, to stop coasting through life and start cultivating what’s good.

    • newsong40
      on Apr 8th at 9:16 am

      That’s great, Bola. Look forward to seeing the fruits of your labours sometime!
      Thanks for the encouragement.


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