There is talk of rationing in the air. Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural affairs has done the maths and warns that population growth and climate change will affect our future food security. Amongst the green left, there’s a nostalgic enthusiasm for this kind of wartime frugality. A rush of books is digging up techniques of how the wartime generation coped with shortage.
After decades of plenty, we are coming to believe we are overburdened by consumption. I’m sure a lot of the world would find this more than a little ironic, but let’s not knock it. A culture of less would be a good thing.
But I started wondering whether it’s not just food and goods we should be thinking about having less of. What if the culture of less were to mean less culture as well? I remember listening to a talk by director Mike Figgis a couple of years ago in which he likened cultural over-production to global warming. The inventions of photography, then magnetic tape and now digitisation means that all culture is now permanent. Nothing is thrown away. New culture constantly pours into the lake at an ever increasing rate, but the lake is now dammed. “Is there too much culture?” asked Figgis. It was an idea that created a few ripples at the time.
If artists are suggesting we could live with less, should we also be living with less art? What if we had cultural rationing books. You might only be allowed five CDs a year, five books, two exhibitions, four films, one orchestral concert and two gigs. Would that make you choose what you consumed more carefully? What would you cut out? And (though the numbers of artists thrown on the dole queue would be huge) would the experience you took away from each encounter stamp itself a little deeper on your mind?
There’s a good article by Robert MacFarlane on Richard Long on Tate Etc, the Tate’s magazine, that attempts to see beyond the usual assumptions people make about Long’s work as “romantic” :
“I feel I carry my childhood with me in lots of aspects of my work,” [Long]remarked. “Why stop skimming stones when you grow up?”
Why indeed? It’s a lovely question – innocently seen and innocently phrased. And Long has never stopped skimming stones, artistically speaking. His hundreds of circles – made around the world in stone, sand, wood, grass and footprints – can be imagined as the ripples of these skimmed stones. To my mind, his work is best understood as a set of persistently childish acts: the outcomes of a brilliantly unadulterated being-in-the-world. The word kindergarten was coined in 1840 by the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852). Kindergarten, literally “a children’s garden”: a school or space for early learning. Froebel (less remembered now than Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner, for he didn’t lend his name to his method) wanted to create an environment in which children could be childish in the best sense of that word. Banished from his kindergartens was the Gradgrindian sense of the infant as a vessel to be filled with facts. Instead, he fostered an ideal of the child as micronaut – an explorer of the world’s textures, laws and frontiers, who should be left to make his or her own discoveries through unstructured play. Froebel wanted children to “reach out and take the world by the hand, and palpate its natural materials and laws”, as Marina Warner observes in a fine essay on play, “to discover gravity and grace, pliancy and rigidity, to sense harmonies and experience limits”.
A nature-lover and walker from an early age, Froebel had a passion for the patterns of phenomena, and in particular for what he called “the deeper lying unity of natural objects”. It was for this reason that the early Froebelian kindergartens had few figurative toys. Instead of trains, dolls and knights, there were wooden cubes and spheres, coloured squares and circles, pebbles, shells and pick-up-sticks. Children spent their days singing songs and playing games, arranging the pebbles in spirals and circles, balancing blocks and picking up sticks. This open play was, as Froebel imagined it, the means by which “the child became aware of itself, and its place within the universe”.
Long is a childish artist in the Froebelian sense, and the wild world is his kindergarten. When Clarrie Wallis, curator of the new Tate exhibition, observes that his work is about his “own physical engagement, exploring the order of the universe and nature’s elemental forces… about measuring the world against ourselves”, she could be describing the Froebelian method. For more than 40 years Long has been using his moving body to explore limits, sense harmonies and apprehend balance and scale. His materials and his vocabulary have always been uncomplicated and childish. “I am content with the vocabulary of universal and common means,” he wrote quietly in 1982, “walking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.” Again in 1985: “My pleasure is in walking, lifting, placing, carrying, throwing, marking.” In 1968 he showed a sculpture of sticks cut from trees along the Avon and laid end to end in lines on the gallery floor. Five, six, pick up sticks. Seven, eight, lay them straight.