Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Of geeks and earthworms - in praise of knowledge

I used to like to think I knew a little about a lot. As a reader of this blog you might agree.
But I take no credit arriving at this point after living 65 years, some 40 of which spent as a national newspaper journalist.
To be an instant expert is a key attribute for any self-respecting reporter. If he or she wrote only on their specialism, they wouldn’t last a day in the newsroom. This isn’t an excuse for amateurism – the practise of journalism is a democratic one. There is no place to hide. If you’re no good your own words will be used in evidence against you.
You can see over on the right hand side of this page the many topics I have entertained in the short life of this blog. I stand by every word but I’m the first to admit that none exhibits any great knowledge above the general.
I’m coming to the conclusion that I may have missed out on the pleasure of knowing a lot about a little. In other words the joy of being a complete geek, a bore, an expert – what you will – on at least one subject.
I’ve been forced to this judgment by the altogether splendid art book A Face To The World – On Self-Portraits by the Observer’s art critic Laura Cumming. Whether writing about Durer, Rembrandt, Munch, Picasso, Warhol and many others, Cumming examines the lives and times of the artists through their self-portraiture in a way that carries its erudition lightly.
Take one of the key masterpieces of the whole genre, which accompanies this post – La Meninas, painted by Velazquez nearly four centuries ago. Cumming’s enthusiasm for the work is infectious and now I wonder why I have yet to make it to Madrid and the Prado where it lives.
If civilisation is around in 400 years time, art lovers and scholars will still be debating the composition of the painting.
There’s the young Princess Margarita in the foreground with her maids and the self-possessed dwarf Maribarbola; Velazquez at his large canvas; but what is reflected in the mirror in the centre background?
Cumming argues it shows the entry into the room of Philip IV and his queen Mariana. Others suggest it is merely the reflection of the artist’s painting.
A trifle perhaps but at the same time a trifle that is at the heart of culture; and culture is at the heart of society.
I would never aspire to Cumming’s knowledge but it would be nice to know a lot about something – the music of Marvin Gaye, the earthworms of East Sussex, the Battle of Trafalgar, Arsenal teams of the 1950s, how to boil the perfect egg – it wouldn’t matter too much what - knowledge would be the thing.
It’s never too late, you say. Ah, but I’m afraid it is.

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