William Henry Davies’s poem often speaks into my life when I am frantically running around trying to fit a thousand jobs into a day:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
We live in a society which does not particularly like ‘time to stand and stare’, because we are conditioned to believe that activity and achievement are inextricably linked. The arts – poetry, art, music, photography, fashion and other forms of creative expression – are often viewed as time-wasting because they are ‘irrelevant’, because their effects and value cannot easily be quantifiably measured. We like measurable goals and targets that can be ticked off. As someone who frequently writes ‘To Do’ lists and enjoys the sstisfaction of seeing those lists completed, I am all too aware of the human tendency to put life into neat little boxes and measure success by how many of those boxes we have filed tidily away.
The arts are not like that. They are messy – anyone who has ever tidied up after a child’s painting or sticking session can verify that! – and often seem to yield little: a child’s scribblings are not often kept for ever. The amount of time put into them does not seem to equal what you get out of them, and our society is very utilitarian about time!
These musings came about from two separate but connected incidents. A photography student showed me a video on stop animation connected with pencils. She had had to do something similar on her course and was frustrated by how long it had taken to shoot seconds of action. Watching the video, which lasts 3 minutes and 24 seconds, I became aware that there were hours of work involved in creating something which lasted such a brief time. Was this a ‘waste’ of time? I don’t think so. I was stunned by the intricacy of the work, by the cleverness of how the pictures matched the lyrics of the song, by the colourful ideas whizzing past my eyes on screen. It was aesthetically satisfying and deeply moving. It had the ‘wow’ factor. It brought a smile to my face. Can those things be measured by time?
‘Against the Grain’, Hudson
The second incident came as I was reading the psalms, and in particular the psalms that David wrote in times of trouble (eg Psalm 57, written when he was hiding from Saul in a cave.) As God’s word reached into my own ‘cave’, I was struck by the thought that writing songs was not what the management gurus would recommend a would-be king to do in times of trouble! I had a vision of some business man in a suit with a flip chart outlining all the strategies David should be employing to get him back into Saul’s favour and out of the trouble he was in: it was all beautifully numbered, with flow charts and strategy bubbles filling page after page. And there David was, humming away to himself, writing a song.
Yet it was this song that was helping me now, in 2013. It wasn’t the fighting strategy anyone had come up with that was speaking into my life. It was poetry, God’s word, coming alive to me – all because David got his priorities right even though it must have seemed like a dangerous use of his time then!
The arts are often not highly valued in education because they do not seem to fit into today’s pragmatism. Even when their value is debated, it’s often debated in terms of what we get out of them: “Arts and Humanities subjects cause life-changing personal development, teach us to engage with ideas critically and independently, and equip students with the skills necessary to understand – and thus work in and manage – how complex organisations operate and change. They also ‘sustain and preserve the heart and soul of our civilisation’,” according to a debate at Sheffield University in May 2011. I think it’s hard to quantify the value of the arts, but I believe that they have value far beyond their appearances!