It might be art, but what does that mean?

And so to London last weekend for the latest in the British Humanist Association’s series of study days, events that are always well worth attending and which should definitely figure on your future list of entertainment and diversion.

Having turned out for two (excellent) such events in the last year or so, with the first covering Darwin, humanism and science, and the second evolutionary theory, it was comforting to be back on firmer ground with this event’s topic, humanism, philosophy and the arts. As non-scientists much of our time and energy at the two earlier conferences were spent trying to grasp the basic concepts that were being presented – worthwhile and rewarding, if somewhat heavy lifting. This time, being closer to our home territory of the humanities, we were able to move beyond that and onto some kind of critical analysis of the arguments that the speakers were presenting. Here are some of the points raised, albeit somewhat simplified and abridged, and apologies in advance if I have at any point misunderstood the arguments that the speakers were making.

Usually they get around to sticking these things up on YouTube (we featured with embarrassing prominence in one of these videos in the past and have tried to sit behind the cameras ever since) so, if interested in the source material for all this, you might check out the BHA YouTube channel here.

Richard Norman: The Arts and the Meaning of Life

The conference kicked off with a presentation from humanist philosopher Richard Norman in which he examined the role of the arts in enabling us to make sense for our life and existence in a way that was much wider than simply acting a substitue for religion. In fact, he turned the queston on its head by suggesting that religion was actually a subset of artistic experience rather than vice versa. He offered four criteria by which the humanist might judge the value of the arts: enhancing our sensory experience; articulating our emotional experience; developing moral awareness and helping us to understand others; and providing and shaping narratives and structures of meaning for our lives – all the things, in fact, that religions claim as their own territory. In what was one of the day’s highlights, he elaborated at length on each of these providing examples such as 18th-century landscape painting, the novels of Jane Austen, the poetry of Sappho, Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits and the music of Mozart. One particularly striking and accessible example of how art has enlarged public understanding and changed opinion was provided by the war poets of 1914 to 1918.

He dismissed arguments of elitism by rejecting the notion that this kind of practice is only open to those willing or able to engage with high culture, when popular fiction, popular music and television drama are all demonstrably capable of fulfilling the same roles. Recent TV series that struck me powerfully as fulfilling this function and discussing the really large issues that people face were the latest seasons of Doctor Who and Ashes to Ashes which have both just completed runs dealing with mortality, grief, loss and what it is that makes us human, pulling in large primetime audiences as they did so. Also the Swedish police procedural Wallander (based on Henning Mankell’s novels based on the eponymous detective) examines a plethora of social issues including crime, immigration and the island mentality, family relations and attitudes to ageing.

The second objection the speaker wished to counter was that his argument was too instrumentalist a view, something he said was an argument from aesthetics. This (clearly treading deeper into philosophical waters than the previous point) stated that if you stress purpose and function too much then artworks become memes or instruments for some purpose, possibly a propagandist one. We should instead value art for its own sake. To this Norman replied that good art is unique, irreplaceable and cannot be reduced to a message. It offers freshness of vision and authentic emotion.

Norman finished by suggesting that religious art takes as much meaning from its human content and emotional appeal than it does to its relationship to specific doctrines. The example he gave was Bach’s Mass in B Minor which can express emotions such as grief, contrition, joy and exultation as well as it can refer to a specific tenet of a religious faith.

Musical interlude: BHA Choir

The importance of this interlude, during which the choir performed traditional folk songs as well as specially-composed items, only struck me later when a member of the audience commented that the day had focused on critical approaches to art rather than actually making it. But here were a group of people on stage actually participating in a creative activity in front of us – which arguably made this one of the most symbolically important events of the day.

Ken Worpole: Defending man at his weakest – humanism and architecture

It’s clear to me now that we must have found Ken Worpole among the most compelling speakers of the day, since we left Conway Hall having bought two of his books and with pages of notes on his talk. This social policy expert, who has a special interest in health, hospices and funerary landscapes, discussed three aspects of architecture, which he described as the practice of finding a home for the body in a finite world. These were the body in health, the body in sickness and the civil body. He asked where does the human body fit into the public doman and gave an account of the 20th-century preoccupation with public health being a central part of social policy since the Victorian era. This saw the invention of a slew of new building types including the sanatorium, the kindergarten, the play park, the lido, the health clinic and the open-air school and it took full advantage of new materials such as glass and steel to create new spaces and new relationships to space.

Today we can still see much evidence of this movement, which was particularly strong during the 1930s, in areas such as Southwark and Bermondsey in inner London. Worpole cited the Peckham Health Centre, which he described as an experiment by radical doctors in working-class areas to pioneer new methods of promoting wellness and social cohesion – not just curing disease. He suggested this had served as a prototype for much current thinking, but also contained a worrying component of social engineering. He mentioned Berthold Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre, a building off Farringdon Road not far from the old Guardian offices, which became famous throughout Europe as part of a movement which promoted the values of outdoor space as not only healthy but creative and democratic by forging links between people who would not otherwise meet. It helped to shape an architecture of futuristic buildings that were easily identifiable as social centres and which were envisaged as a model for public health centres nationwide.

Moving on to the theme of the body in sickness, he pointed out that death presents a problem for architects as much as it does for humanists – not least the problem of institutionalisation with more than 60 per cent of the population dying in hospitals or residential homes and more than 54 per cent of NHS complaints concerning treatment of the dying. He pointed out that hospitals are designed to sustain life, therefore death is a failure and one that, when it threatens to occur in an institution, still invokes the stigma of misery, poverty, failure and fear of loss of status that is a hangover from the Victorian workhouse. He produced some interesting figures showing the propensity for cremation among different European nations, where the take-up rate is easily highest in the UK and Scandinavia while Catholic countries, where there is a belief in the literal resurrection of the body come Judgement Day, it is in single figures.

He described the process of cremation as vital to both rationalism and town planning but pointed out that it poses tremendous cultural challenges with no satisfactory architectural language yet developed despite the opening of the first crematorium in the UK more than 100 years ago (Golders Green in 1902). He also mentioned the interesting fact that woodland burial, with its relative anonymity and lack of pomp, has only really taken off in the UK and is an entirely new tradition in burial practice that has become established very quickly. He also talked at some length about the hospice movement and about the design of cancer support centres in ways that sought to put the patient or user at the centre of their function.

In his final point on the civic body, Worpole described how attempts to bring about urban renaissance date back to a 1999 report by Richard Rogers that marked an attempt to regenerate and introduce more strategic thinking. He made the fascinating point that there is more than one tradition of urbanism in Europe. There is the Mediterranean one that picks up a lot of perhaps unthinking support and which incorporates corporate life, bars, enjoyment, art and a focus on the youthful (but which excludes children). But the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have an entirely different approach based on decentralisation and networks, focus on suburbs, sustainability and social equality that does not prioritise the centre. He characterised this as the difference between Barcelona and Copenhagen and – not for the first time – I found myself thinking that the UK could benefit greatly from building its links with its near Scandinavian neighbours rather than constantly looking to the unfamiliar cultures of southern Europe.

The talk ended with the sad acknowledgement that public space, once a common and shared public provision, is now marketised – think in terms of transport, housing, education and leisure. To use public transport, social housing, council leisure centres or comprehensive schools is to be stigmatised. We are in an era of provision of last resort, something that made me feel both cross and unhappy. But, ending on a positive note, Worpole pointed to the radical rethink going on in public libraries and looked once again at the Scandinavian model where, in the winter, people might turn up for four or five hours at a time, and are provided with lockers for their outdoor clothes, coffee and proper toilets. He mentioned projects such as The Forum in Norwich where public library provision is being completely rethought.

And so to lunch…

Read about the afternoon sessions here.