Art of the matter: Richard Eyre on the meaning of culture

After his first trip to the theatre at the age of 16, everything changed for Richard Eyre. He fell in love with the arts. Now, he says, it's time to rethink our ideas about what makes great art
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I grew up in a rural backwater miles away from any cinema, even farther from any theatre, in a house where the paintings were of horses and the books were about war. To borrow a phrase from Neil Kinnock, I was the first member of my family in a thousand generations to attend a university but, in case I give the impression that, like the Monty Python sketch, I used to have to get up out of the shoe box in the middle of the night and lick the road clean with my tongue, I should make it clear that my upbringing was in almost every other sense a highly privileged one.

My father was a farmer and I grew up in Dorset – a county conspicuous for its complete absence of theatre. At school I was more interested in maths and physics until – at the age of 16 – I went to stay with a friend in Bristol and I saw Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic. I had never read the play, barely knew of its existence, and it capsized me. I was like the composer Berlioz, who said after seeing a performance of the same play in Paris: "Shakespeare, coming on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest corners. I recognised the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth... I saw, I understood, I felt... that I was alive and that I must arise and walk." And, he added, "at this time of my life I neither spoke not understood a word of English."

I decided that what I most wanted was to be a part of the world that had opened up to me. I wanted to be an actor. But it took several years working as a professional actor to accept the truism that "actors are born, not made" might well be true. By this time, however, I was addicted to the amiable, raffish world of the theatre, where no one cared much what age you were, what class you came from, what sex you were attracted to, as long as you were prepared to work – and you had talent. I liked working during other people's leisure time, having time off when everyone else was working. Being a night person gives you a sense of living by different rules, you can deride the tyranny of the daily routine. It's an illusion, of course – there's no more demanding routine than that of the actor in the long run – but it's a fantasy that sustains many dressers, designers, technicians and directors. And I liked the iconoclasm, standing outside society, being not quite respectable.

I liked too the underside of theatre – the wood, the canvas, the cables, the lighting equipment, the props waiting to be picked up. The actors waiting for their entrance. I liked watching from the wings that transformation that occurs as actors walk onstage. Ordinary humans become larger than life, onstage they have the power of giants. I stopped acting, started directing, and continued working in theatre – with odd bouts of television and film.

For me, the attraction of theatre has become less to do with the life offstage and more and more to do with it as a medium, with what I've come to think of as the "theatreness" of theatre – those unique properties that make it distinct from any other medium.

Each art form has its unique properties. There is no art that uses time, space, gesture, movement, speech, colour costume, light and music in the way that the theatre does. It's never like real life but it's true to life. It's poetic: it thrives on metaphor – things stand for things rather than being the thing itself, a room becomes a world, a group of characters become a whole society. Theatre invokes the astonishment of the unreal, and the strange, magnified proportions which occur naturally in childhood.

What I like about the theatre is precisely what some people hate about it. I like being made to concentrate. I like the fallibility which goes hand in hand with the immediacy. I like the fact that it happens in the present tense, that it's vulnerable and it's changeable. I like sharing time with strangers: a beginning and an end, a sense of birth and a sense of death. And I like the fact that everything about the theatre depends on the relationship of a performer to a group of spectators in the present tense. Believing in the power of the theatre is, I suppose, a bit like believing in religion – you have to experience its effect to understand its attraction.

Unreproduceable

But even at its very greatest, theatre is ephemeral. It lives on only in the memory, melting away after the event like a snowman. The great Florentine grandee Piero de' Medici is alleged to have commissioned Michelangelo to make a sculpture in snow after a rare snowfall in Tuscany. Michelangelo's snowman was said to have been his greatest work, but you had to have been there to have seen it – it was as frail, as mutable, as vulnerable and as unreproduceable as a theatre performance and, like a theatre performance, it lived on only in the memory.

In the age of the computer, knowledge is everlasting, nothing is destroyed – everything is recorded in binary digits, invisible and inextinguishable as God. In this context, what we hold in our heads – our memory, our feelings, our own sense of our own history – becomes more to be valued, more to be cherished. What's human is unique, it can't be digitised. The art of the theatre is an expression of that humanness: it's an art that can never dispense with its reliance on the dimensions of the human figure, the sound of the human voice, and the desire to tell each other stories.

In this country, we enjoy the happy accident of having the greatest tradition of theatre in the world. And theatre's at the centre of our national life – we have an adversarial system in Parliament and in the law courts. We love play-acting and dressing up in our national ceremonies, and we have a class system which involves us in learning and unlearning roles throughout our lives – pretending to be what we aren't.

Why do we need theatre? In fact, why do we need the arts? In the past century, war has acquired a cosmic barbarity, economies have become bulimic, sex has become public wallpaper, and tyranny has been the best-rehearsed political system. The virus of sloganry and demagoguery has infected every cell of our minds, and mass has distorted proportion by eliminating human scale in entertainment, buildings, industry, weapons, armies, death, poverty and disease. Giants stalk the globe – corporations, political leaders, showbiz icons – and we crawl dwarfed beneath them, surrounded by a babel of communication. The arts remind us of our scale, of our vulnerability and of our individuality.

But what do we mean by "art"? Art is... what? A pursuit of excellence, a pursuit of meaning, a way of trying to make sense of the world. The arts, we'd say, are part of our life, our language, our way of seeing. The arts tell us truths about ourselves and each other and our society that reach parts of us that politics and journalism don't. Art is passionate, ambiguous, complex, mysterious, and thrilling. It helps us to fit the disparate pieces of the world together; it helps us to try to make form out of chaos.

From all this I don't imagine you'd dissent. And perhaps we could all agree on a hierarchy, a pantheon that would include, say, Shakespeare, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Mahler, Matisse, Dickens, Beckett, Picasso, Stravinsky, Auden, Hughes, Renoir, Fellini, Orson Welles, Charlie Parker – and so on, all dead, all tested by time, all enduringly popular.

But what about the art of our own times? And what about our – largely white, largely European, largely middle-class, and in my case largely middle-aged – perceptions? We'd all say that Shakespeare is an inviolably great figure – the great figure in world literature – but what do we say to the schoolboy in Soweto who said to me: "To us, Shakespeare is dust."

This is just to remind ourselves that our definitions are not fixed. There is no inviolable canon even if we think so. And while I may assert that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright ever, how do I reconcile my belief with the fact that a very large number of people in this country would agree with the boy from Soweto, and would argue that the novels of, say, Jeffrey Archer are more accessible and enjoyable – and who am I to say that they aren't?

The answer, you may say, is self-evident. Perhaps. But when we look at the art of our own times, we can easily get caught between complimenting the Emperor on his new clothes and sounding like Ruskin saying of a painting of Whistler's that it was like "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face". Just because art doesn't look or sound like we expect it to, it may be precisely why we need it – because it's original, because it makes us look at the world differently, because it uncovers new meanings.

Do we believe that if something is popular it can't be art? Or do we believe its corollary: that unpopularity is a measure of artistic worth? What is the difference between art and entertainment? Why is Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes art and not Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera? Why is Picasso a challenging and subversive painter and Warhol merely a phenomenon of the market? Is Bob Dylan a better poet than Keats?

In reply to all this, I can only offer you a personal catechism of what I believe is art.

Ambition

For me, a work of art has to have ambition beyond wanting to please the audience or appease fashion. It has to have ambition to examine the world – people or nature or society – and make it look or sound or seem new. "Artists have to see spirits, then afterwards everyone sees them," said Goethe. A work of art should introduce something that didn't exist before.

Art has always to struggle against mediocrity; it's nothing if it doesn't aspire to be excellent, but it's nothing if excellence alone is its ambition. There has to be an element, in all art, of exceptional skill, of something being done with awesome craftsmanship. But an artist who is only a craftsman is only a craftsman.

Art must have form, it must have meaning – like science, art is a way of knowing the world, of giving form and

meaning to a society that often seems formless.

There has to be a complexity about art – but that's not the same as obscurity. There must be mystery, a sense of unknowability in a work of art – as there is in every human. In art, reality must be given the chance to be mysterious, and fantasy the chance to be commonplace.

The DNA of art is metaphor: that's the genetic cell without which nothing can be mutated by craft into art. Art strives towards the mythic: towards seeing heaven in a grain of sand. Art is unquestionably a form of magic, conjuring something from nothing – sounds from the air on a musical instrument, a world with a pen on a page of paper.

Art must be serious about itself. That doesn't mean that it can't be funny, but it means it can't be trivial. But seriousness alone – any more than sincerity alone – isn't enough in itself. There can be few people more serious, or more sincere, than, say, performers in the Eurovision Song Contest, but that doesn't make them artists.

There has to be an element of pleasure in art, of sensual enjoyment. Art has to ravish the senses but not only do that. There has to be a moral sense. You have to be able to sense that the artist has a view that human beings possess a moral sensibility. But that's not the same as the artist being a socially responsible person or being a moralist – or even being a "good" person. The artist may be saying "this is how you should live your life" but it must be implied and not preached. Art is not polemic, nor is it pacification; it's the handmaiden of desire.

Art reflects, expresses, invokes, and describes the ambiguity of humanity. Whatever the form of art, however realistic or however fantastical, it offers up a commentary on being alive, on the infinite messiness of humanity. In Matthew Arnold's phrase, art is "criticism of life".

And there must be passion. Passion gives us a sense of life lived more intensely, with more meaning – more joy, more sorrow.

Potential

However we define art, its existence begs the child's question: what's it for? I suppose the simplest answer is from two tramps in Waiting for Godot: "That passed the time," says Vladimir. "It would have passed in any case," says Estragon. "Yes," says Vladimir, "but not so rapidly."

Art doesn't improve our behaviour; it doesn't civilise us. We have only to remember the stories of the commandments in the camps listening to Schubert while smoke rose from the gas ovens to feel shy of that argument. But that contradiction is part of what art is about – as the philosopher George Santayana said: "Music is useless, as life is."

But it's precisely our awareness of the "uselessness" of life that make us want to struggle to give it purpose, and to give that purpose of meaning. Art is part of the human equipment – a way of reminding ourselves that we're human. To be human is to carry what King Lear called the "smell of morality". Art redeems mortality by giving us a glimpse of eternity.

It's through the arts that the potential of each of us is fulfilled. And it's that sense of fulfilment, of common purpose and shared joy, that unique satisfaction that comes from doing something difficult that gives pleasure to others. That's what should be at the heart of all the arts – the desire to communicate, to share with other people your skill, your knowledge and your joy.

If I had to give advice to anyone who endeavours to work in the arts, I would say this: the indispensable virtues for any successful work are faith, hope and charity – faith that what you're doing is worth doing, hope that this faith will be corroborated by your audience, and charity from those whom you depend on to continue to practise your art.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Sir Richard Eyre for the opening of a new theatre at Cheltenham Ladies' College

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So what is art? Where do you stand on the Keats/Bob Dylan divide? Do you agree with Richard Eyre's definition of a great artist? Share your views in the comments section below and we'll print the best responses in 'The Independent' next week.

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