It was on Manukau Road on an evening in perhaps November, with Dave, my teaching colleague at Onehunga High School. He taught Technology and I taught English, but we were there because of Anthony, the Art teacher, who was hocking off a Ralph Hotere lithograph in order to purchase a second-hand Cortina. I can’t remember how he happened to own it. There was some family connection, I think, with Hotere himself, but the detail eludes me now.
Dave parked up outside Epsom Girls’, and we walked the rest of the way to the auctioneer’s, both feeling diffident. We had walked to plenty of games at Eden Park together, but the walk to the auctioneer’s required a different stride that neither of us had practised or mastered. We were late, slightly too late to pick up a catalogue, but in time for a canapé: smoked salmon and dill atop a fairly meagre pikelet. Someone ushered us into a crowded room. I soon found myself shoulder to shoulder with a TVNZ anchor I recognised. “You can share my catalogue,” she offered, seeing that Dave and I had missed out on one. Then, “That one doesn’t do it for me,” she muttered, pointing out Lot 4 in the catalogue with a shiny pink thumb nail. “Doesn’t do it for me at all. And as for that one—I could have had that for 15k ten years ago if my husband had agreed to buy it.” Meanwhile, Dave, at my other shoulder, was gazing around the room and tsking at most of the artwork on display; he seemed to be having trouble with abstraction. “Absolute garbage, that is, Absolute garbage. My daughter could do better than that.”
I have often thought back upon that evening: Auckland’s glitterati gathered around this thing called art, the auctioneer’s certainty of the importance of the occasion, Anthony’s clear-eyed equation (Hotere = wheels), and Dave—who really only wanted a scone and a mug of tea—determined to be outraged. And then me, your trusty narrator, somewhere in the midst of all of this, groping about for a way to truly respond.
We know from John’s gospel that as Jesus was dying, he gazed upon his mother Mary and “the disciple whom he loved.” It is remarkable to think of him in these moments of utter anguish still looking outwards at what was before him—still noticing it and engaging with it. It’s quite some feat of attention. Had Jesus attended the auction on Manukau Road, what would have caught his eye? How would he have responded to Lot 4, or 8, or 19? Or to move the thought experiment along some more, how we can attend best to our artist friends? When someone you know asks you to look at their painting, or sculpture, or photo, how can you escape the tired responses so automatically modelled for me at the auction?
We need, I think, to train ourselves to look first and talk later. To see art not as a collectible commodity nor as esoteric pretension but as something that invites us into an experience and—ultimately—a response. When I lived in France in my early 20s, I did what visitors to France do: I went to art galleries. Going to a gallery is a lot like going to a professional training day. There will be plenty that “doesn’t do it for you,” but, if you leave with two or three little takeaways, that’s a good result. I went to a Picasso museum, I visited Matisse’s birthplace, I checked out the Musée d’Orsay. There was a day in Lille when my flatmate Max and I visited the Musée des Beaux Arts, lasting just ten minutes before confirming via eyebrows that the time had come to leave. But a highlight for me was a trip to the Orangerie, a museum of rooms each roughly the size of an indoor cricket court, seemingly built for the express purpose of housing Claude Monet’s massive waterlily paintings. Each one was a giant panorama, occupying a wall all its own. The bench seat in the middle of each room, like a bus stop, allowed you to sit and simply gaze out at the scene before you—so many cupped flowers, dreamily reflected in Monet’s shimmering purple ponds.
When I bring my poem drafts to my wife Sarah, much as our cat brings dead birds into the house, she never knows how to respond. By and large they leave her feeling nonplussed. This is how I’ve often felt before a painting. It’s a sense exacerbated, perhaps even engendered, by feeling as though I’m supposed to be “getting” something when I look at a painting. Or, as if I’m the only person in the room who hasn’t got the joke. But what if I could just look at it and then do what Sarah does so brilliantly in her role as a social worker—play the part of the “naive enquirer”? Interact. “I wonder what the painter was feeling when she painted this? Is the way I’m feeling now somehow produced by this painting? Could that bird be a sly pointer to the Holy Spirit? Is this a close-up or a panorama? Or both?”
Maybe, in fact, as in prayer, we need to suppress our urge, at least initially, to talk at all. Instead, we need to let the painting talk to us. If we can free ourselves of the suspicion that we’re being somehow tested when asked to engage with art, perhaps we’ll feel free not to pronounce upon it: first, to let it be, and next, to let it move us—to give it the time we need for our own thoughts and feelings to emerge. Because emerge they will. And then when you’re ready, you might respond with a paean, or a parody, or a poem, or a prayer. Or even a painting of your own.
There is one other thing. Good paintings can help us to see the world better. Look at Mana Island, then look at Don Binney’s painting of Mana Island, then look at Mana Island again. You don’t have to say anything about it; just do it. Or watch the sunset from a west coast beach, then immerse yourself in Colin McCahon, then get back outside and watch the sunset again. The chances are your sense of sun and horizon and wave cap and nightfall will be heightened by having soaked up a McCahon Muriwai. Even one of those black paintings by Ralph Hotere: I don’t pretend to understand why they’re so brilliant, so prized. But, if you get up close to one, the black is almost physical—is physical, actually, being made of paint—and it puts you in mind of … I dunno, the presence of God. Or at the very least, something no less thrilling than a second-hand Cortina.