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The End of Art is Peace

Mark VKearney2 August 2018

The title of this blog refers to a favourite line from Seamus Heaney’s The Harvest Bow, a poem that explores the humanity of the writer’s father as he crafts a decorative knot made of woven straw reeds, a traditional Irish custom strongly linked with courtship and marriage (you can see my own example below).

The end of art is peace….

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Since beginning the role of Student Engager earlier this year, I have found myself thinking of this poem more frequently; one reason for this is that the Petrie Museum holds in its collection an example of a woven basket, in front of which I always stand during my shifts. The similarities of form between two objects separated by both thousands of years and miles has made me wonder just how universally pervasive the skill was.

Woven basket which is on display and the inspiration for this blog post (Petrie Museum, 7494).

Let me just mention one other important fact about all this… I’ve a background in physics and my current PhD research is based on the decay of modern materials like plastics in museums. Basket making — especially the ancient form — is a little out of my comfort zone!

It therefore came as a shock to me that the weaving skills I learnt in the classroom (as every Irish child does) can be traced back to before the use of pottery. As Carolyn McDowall mentions, many weaving techniques reflect the geographical location of the many and varied culturally different groups”. The beauty of traditional skills such as these is they can offer a connection, via our hands, to the past as little has changed in the way we construct them over thousands of years.

From a personal viewpoint, I’ve always been drawn to geometric objects such as these; its possibly the physicist in me attracted to their symmetry (or in certain cases, lack thereof). My research trip down the rabbit hole for this blog lead me to some interesting reading about the mathematics of weaving. One thing is for sure, that the resulting patterns are pleasing to the eye, and the inclusion of dyed, or painted elements into the structure elevates a simple commodity into a piece of folk art. It’s also clear that the resulting symmetrical patterns are universally pleasing – why else would we find decorative patterns in weaving in Egypt, southern Africa, and from the peoples of Native American tribes.

My research also led me to a theory about something that have always wondered – if you walk around the pottery displays in the Petrie Museum, you will notice that many of the objects have geometric patterns baked into them. I’ve never understood why they would go to the added trouble of imprinting the pattern. If, however, you acknowledge that patternation is a universal trait, and that basket weaving pre-dates pottery then the herringbone patterns found on some pottery could be the makers attempt to copy the form of woven baskets. I asked fellow engager Hannah, who’s PhD focuses on sub-Saharan African ceramics, about my theory recently. Hannah told me that “some academics have suggested that in these cases these decorated ceramics can imply that vessels made from natural fibres were also made and used in these time periods”. So it seems I’m onto something with the theory!

An example from the collection showing a herringbone pattern that Hannah says would have been applied with a stick or pointed object which the clay had been air-dried. (Petrie Museum, 14165)

The Petrie Museum has other examples of weaving skills. There are examples of sandals –

More examples of weaving from the Collection (Petrie Museum, UC769 Above & UC 16557 Below).

And Rope –

(Petrie Museum, UC7420).

One thing that stuck me is that these products must have created trade between the groups, promoting both an early economy and the spread of their technologies. Could this be why some of the patterns are common to all or could the base mathematics of weaving be a common universal trait somehow hardwired into our brains? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer this question during my research. I’ll have to keep digging for the answer, but in the end, I am left with an even deeper understanding and connection to the past, and an object that as Heaney says, “is burnished by its passage, and still warm”.

Of “Poetry” and poetry: Wordsworth’s skates and other objects

NiallSreenan1 June 2017

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the encounter with death that visitors to any museum must face. Paintings, sculpture, artefacts from the past, even biological specimens: something living in these things is irretrievably lost as soon as they become museal; that is, framed or mounted, put on display for the consumption or consideration of an audience. In a museum, neither the fullness of an object’s historical life nor the vital potential of an artwork shorn from its context can be communicated, as long as the logics of museum display tend towards, as Adorno puts it, historical ‘reification’ or ‘the neutralisation of culture’.

The Nobel prize winning Irish poet Séamus Heaney seeks to offer a different account of the encounter between a museum visitor and an artefact on display in his poem “Wordsworth’s Skates”. Here, mirroring Adorno, Heaney ruminates briefly on the incapacity of museal objects from the artist’s life – the Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s ice skates, in this instance – to call up and materialise the authentic vitality of his life and work.

What could achieve this? Certainly ‘Not his bootless runners’ lying ‘In dust in a display case / Their bindings perished’. For Heaney, these heavy, steel-shod shoes are mere secondary instruments of a poetic life in both its aesthetic and biographical senses; objects that in mediating our relation to Wordsworth’s writing and history obscure the ‘reel of them on frozen Windermere / As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored’.

Wordsworth's Skates - via "Trails of the Unexpected"

Wordsworth’s Skates – via “Trails of the Unexpected”

 

However, reading this poem in this way has its limits. Even if Heaney is indulging in a critique of dusty museums, their capacity to drain life from the objects they seek to elevate, it is a critique that fails. The poem itself emphasises this artefact’s capacity as a symbolic entity to point to other literary, historical, cultural contexts – sometimes called “indexicality”. In that ‘Not’ which precedes ‘the bootless runners’, Heaney sets up a relation to the object, albeit a negative one, which implies that while this object does not provide us with an authentic experience of Wordsworth’s life or poetry, it does nevertheless relate to or index certain contexts, histories, and texts drawn from the viewer’s own experience or to which one can be guided. Those lines in Heaney’s poem, composed upon the occasion of contemplating a pair of weathered looking skates, guide us back to the stanza in Wordsworth’s monumental Prelude, where the poet describes himself ‘Proud and exulting like an untired horse […] hissed along the polished ice’. So not only does the poem emphasise the museum object’s indexical capacity to point to texts, contexts, histories, or even feelings outside its immediate physical boundaries. This poem is itself a response to that, to the failure of this object in one sense and, in another, an actual example of the productive power of objects on display.

Here then, is a museum object – pathetic in its obsolescence and in comparison with sublimity of the life and poetry it seeks to evoke – that nevertheless points Heaney and us to the material of that very life and instigates the creation of yet more poetic art. This echoes Ben Lerner’s formulation in The Hatred of Poetry, that there are in fact two types of poetry: “Poetry”, the sublime, transcendent aesthetic object, inaccessible (if ever) except in moments of brief and irretrievable illumination; and actually existing poetry, the text or material of the artwork, which always fails us in its attempt to communicate the timeless sublime. For Lerner, this is the source of his (loving) hatred of poetry, as well as poetry’s animating force. We might glimpse the heavenly through poetry, through text, much like a skater uses steel to slide with seemingly impossible ease over ice, but that frictionless grace, that flash of illumination, is either imagined or simply too fleeting to grasp. However, it is the desire for a lasting sublimity which animates this movement and it persists precisely because its object – the finality of the sublime – is unachievable.

Similarly, instead of lamenting the incapacity of the object as a mediator of “the thing in itself”, Heaney’s poem seems unconcerned with inaccessible transcendence and celebrates the existence of object in-between. He has form for this, of course: consider the metaphor of shovel as pen in another of his poems, “Digging”: a quotidian and unwieldy object that nevertheless achieves something significant, breaking the surface of the earth, excavating, making a mark.

That’s poetry, then. But what of museums and museum objects? And what of the objects in UCL’s Museums?

Consider the specimens in the Grant Museum – say, the preserved thylacine, once dissected by a man called “Darwin’s Bulldog”, T.H. Huxley, whose own scientific work and theorising was and still is greatly influential, and whose fame extends to his grandsons, Aldous and Julian Huxley, each of whom respectively made hugely significant contributions to literature and evolutionary science.

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

That the thylacine itself is not merely dead, but its species entirely extinct, emphasises the folly of indicting museum objects on display for being unable to recuperate authentic historical (or any other form of) life. What the thylacine specimen does achieve – the only thing it can achieve – is to point its viewers towards something else, some other context or text or idea. In my experience, this was that Huxleyean lineage of major scientists and authors, whose works on human evolution, the synthesis of Darwinian evolution and genetic science, and Utopian/Dystopian futures, have become central to my research on the relationship between literature and science. For all of its viewers, however, the thylacine points to its own death, brings the question of its own extinction to the foreground. This is encouraged by the Grant Museum, who display beside the thylacine a picture of the last one ever to exist.

Museum objects can never be what Lerner calls “Poetry”, and they will never communicate to us a timeless sublime or authentic historical life. But they can be poetry, in the materialist sense that Heaney’s poem brings to light: for it is precisely in their failure to be fully alive, as opposed to only being dead, that they function as relational objects which point us towards other places, ideas, texts, histories, or feelings and, perhaps, even towards poetic inspiration.