(Written 5 Jun 2011)

Dear All,

There is a short story published in a collection of 40 short, short stories (sadly my copy has been lost) in which a travelling musician is moving between islands in a small boat somewhere in Scandinavia when a storm comes up. The musician seeks shelter at a lighthouse where the lighthouse-keeper is an old man who has lived in the lighthouse all his life. He has never heard music.

After having had something to eat, the keeper asks the musician what is in the black case. “A violin” says the musician. “What’s that?” asks the keeper. “An instrument for making music.” “What’s that?” the keeper asks again. The musician opens the case, tunes up and plays a piece on the violin to show the old man music.

I do not remember which piece the writer of the story has the musician play, but I do remember that it was something by Beethoven and so I expect it was a section from the violin concerto.

As the writer tells it, as the storm raged outside the musician played the piece as he had never played it before. The crescendos where accompanied by the waves crashing on the rocks below and the old man listened intensely and stoically. By the time the piece ended the exhausted musician lowered his head onto his chest and the two men sat there is silence with the wind swirled around the beacon that never missed a beat throughout. After a few minutes the old man spreads his hands on the table and with a distant look in his eye says, “That is true.”

* * *

That, to my mind, is the central emotion that art (and science) in all its forms should evoke in the viewer, listener, or reader. Something about it has to get the observer to feel, “that is true”. For example, when you look at Van Gogh’s Starry night over the Rhone perhaps you too can share the wonder expressed by the couple in the bottom right and like Simon Schama think of it as the “unutterable, immeasurable intoxication of the senses.” But even if you are not overwhelmed, you will recognise “the truth” in the painting because there would be a moment in your life when you too were fascinated by the night sky.

So what of art that catches the eye but does not ring true; art that may be clever, or funny or even insulting? One may argue that what is one man’s meat is another man’s poison, but I don’t think that to be true. I cannot define it, but I think that in the same way that we recognise the difference between ethical and unethical, we can recognise the difference between the “truth” and the gimmick, the trick, in art.

Consider the attached painting by Peter van Straten. While I find both the deep connection between complex analysis and geometry, as well as the beautifully rounded derriere most appealing; my sense is that this combination is ‘gimmick art’.