Turning your back on beauty

I spent this weekend with the lovely FF mooching around the streets, markets and coffee shops of Brixton and Shoreditch.

On Saturday evening we went for a wander around the Tate Modern, and happened upon Ai Weiwei’s Kui Hua Zi – a pile of individually made ceramic sunflower seeds, arranged in a perfectly conical pile. It’s possibly one of the highlights of the gallery’s current collection, and the room was busy with people wandering in to look.

But it struck me that every person, myself included, who walked in, turned their back immediately on the art they’d come to see to read the blurb on the wall. At one point every person in the room had their back to the art they’d come to look at.

As a child born at the start of the information age, where the desire to know and to understand is paramount, I wonder if I expect an instant explanation to everything I see. Wikipedia shuts down for a day in protest at proposed changes to US legislation and all the random answers to the daily inane questions I ask were suddenly lost to me, leaving me feeling disconnected, lost and vaguely unable to make sense of the world.

The expectation that information is and ought to be available, I feel, provides a common theme to much of last year’s protests and the sense of moral outrage expressed by people about MPs expenses, bank bailouts and bonuses, corruption in the police force, and phone hacking – we want the truth, we want to know all things, and we don’t see why, in a highly connected age, when everything is documented and logged on databases and spreadsheets, we can’t have access to all of that too. It’s a righteous quest for truth.

I have no problem with seeking the truth, especially in the face of injustice or crime.

But I wonder if our obsession with information is depriving us of mystery, and with it a sense of wonder. So much so that when we visit an art gallery to see what is obtuse, what is being expressed incoherently through the power of vision and experience rather than words, what is beautiful, skillful or wondrous, we lack the capacity to view the art without seeing it through the medium of information. I’m curious as to whether we only feel a sense of wonder at Ai Weiwei’s work because the writing on the board next to it tells us why and how to feel.

Beauty and wonder and mystery are in front of us, and we turn our backs to read 100 words that explain to us that we are surrounded by beauty, wonder and mystery. Then we try and feel them. Almost like we’ve become so used to being given information, and maybe told what to think, we’ve stopped looking for ourselves. And maybe we’ve stopped being able to see for ourselves too.


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